Reflection offered at a “Longest Night” service on December 21, 2015
For me, the winter solstice is almost as sacred as Christmas Eve. Tonight, the solstice occurs just before 10 pm. It is the moment in the earth’s year-long journey around the sun when its axial tilt relative to that of the sun is at its most extreme. This means that today and tomorrow are the shortest days of 2015 and that this will be its longest night — at least for those of us who are among the 90% of humanity north of the equator.
Statistically, the coldest weather of the year lies one month ahead. But we can be certain that after tonight, the days will begin to lengthen and the sun will rise higher over the horizon each day for the next six months.
And for those of us who live in Edmonton, Canada’s most northerly big city, the solstice might have more significance than for our neighbours to the south.
People of all times and cultures have tracked the movement of the sun because of its spiritual and practical significance. If the solar year of 365 days has an end and a beginning, a good argument can be made that tonight is that moment. For these reasons, most cultures have festivals at or near the solstice.
The timing of the solstice is an exact science. But our yearly festivals are arbitrary, and Christmas is one example. There are four narratives of the life of Jesus in the Bible, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But only two — Matthew and Luke — contain a birth narrative, and their two accounts don’t match.
Luke has Jesus born far from his parents’ hometown of Nazareth in a stable in Bethlehem. Matthew has Jesus born in his parents’ bed in their hometown of . . . Bethlehem. In Luke, Jesus returns to Nazareth immediately following his birth. In Matthew, Jesus goes to Nazareth only after spending several years in exile in Egypt where his parents have fled to escape a murderous campaign of King Herod.
Nor do these birth narratives give a time of year for Jesus’ birth. In the Fourth Century, the church set Jesus’ birthday on December 25 just after the winter solstice. This makes sense to me since the Romans were already marking the longest nights of the year in late December and looking toward the return of the sun.
One thing both birth narratives agree upon is that Jesus’ birth is revealed in the night. In Matthew’s account, the birth is heralded by a Star that astrologers from the East follow first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, the birth of Jesus is announced by angels to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.
Most of the other action of the first Christmas in Matthew occur in dreams. Joseph learns in a dream that the child to be born to his betrothed Mary will be a Saviour conceived of the Holy Spirit. After they have made their way to Bethlehem to worship Jesus, the astrologers are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem to tell Herod of what they have found, but to go home by a different way.
Joseph is then warned in a dream to flee the wrath of Herod, which triggers the flight of his family to Egypt. Likewise, several years later Joseph learns of the death of Herod in a dream, which causes him to return to Israel with Mary and Jesus — but not back to Bethlehem but to Galilee.
Christmas is announced in the night sky and in dreams. This is part of the charm of Christmas, I think, and another reason why setting this festival in the darkest time of the year makes spiritual and psychological sense.
But there is more darkness than just that of the night in the two stories. In Luke’s version, Mary and Joseph have to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem at the command of the occupying empire of Rome. And even though there is no other violence in Luke, his account of the naming ritual for Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem eight days later comes with a warning.
In the Temple, an old man named Simeon greets the eight-day old Jesus as the Messiah and says he can now die in peace. But he also has this to say to Mary: “Your child is destined to make many fall and many rise in Israel and to set up a standard which some will attack — for he will expose the secret thoughts of our hearts. And as for you … your very soul will be pierced by a sword.” I believe that Simeon is referring here to the shadow of the cross.
Matthew’s version is more extreme. In his account, King Herod is frightened by news of the birth of a new King of the Jews, so he issues orders to kill all the male children of two years and under in Bethlehem.
So this is the first Christmas — two tales of imperial occupation, poverty, and murder. And yet our celebration of Christmas is all about light, merriment, and joy.
Christmas is all those things, of course. But I fear that the nature of our Christmas celebrations can make it hard for many of us to find spiritual comfort. At Christmas, many of us are filled with memories of loss, or we are in pain, or we are dealing with other difficulties. These realities can make it hard to join family and community gatherings that have an exclusive focus on the bright side of life.
Because of this, tonight I want to also uphold the value of darkness, cold, and the coming of winter. They can remind us of all the colours of life and not just the bright ones that our culture tends to celebrate.
When I was a child, I lived in Cornwall Ontario on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, and the winters were white and cold. But when we travelled west on Christmas Day to visit both sets of grandparents on the shores of Lake Ontario, I would often watch the snow dwindle down to nothing as we got closer to the moderating effect of the big Lake.
I am glad that even in these times of climate change, Edmonton is still blessed with cold and snow during the short days of Winter. Each year, I yearn to slow down and reflect; and the cold and dark of winter help me with this task. Not only do they help me prepare for the return of light after the solstice and Christmas. They also help me digest the past year with all its highs and lows and to incorporate the year’s blessings and losses into my soul. And is this not what life is all about, to grow our souls based on the events in life’s mysterious, painful, and awesome journey?
Christmas cheer can make this essential and gracious task more difficult, I fear.
So tonight, I encourage us to breathe deeply, slow down our pulse, and sit in the shadows cast by candle-light. To me, a candle in the darkness reflects the reality of the world into both which Jesus and we have been born — one with both love and loss, family joy and poverty, hope and despair, and prayers for peace in times of violence.
When we take the time to reflect, I believe that we will discover that God in Christ is with us in the darkness. He is there both as a helpless infant at his birth and as a wise teacher and friend in later life who walks with us to confront loss.
On life’s path, we experience God’s hope, peace, and love; and we feel joy knowing that the salvation of all our loved ones is assured.
As it was in Bethlehem at the first Christmas or in Jerusalem at the first Easter, much in life does not come easily. And yet with God’s Grace, we can approach Christmas with joy regardless of our family situation or health. This week as Christmas comes again, we can experience again “how silently, how silently, a wondrous gift is given.”
The gift of Christmas is one that comes to us as the days start to lengthen. This fact can remind us of God’s love, which is here during dark nights of the soul no matter when they happen.
The gift of Christmas is represented by candles shining in a dark sacred night. They might represent the divinity of all the loved ones we have lost and the divine light that shines in us and other humble fools who try to say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year regardless of the circumstances.
Jesus was born on a dark night in troubling circumstances, and he continues to walk with us in all the ups and downs of life regardless of the season.
And so for one more time this Advent, I offer again these ancient words of hope, “Come Lord Jesus Come.”