The planet turns in its ancient and dependable rhythm;
Death is overcome with fire and light;
‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right.
Dear Saturday Evening Friends,
This coming Tuesday, December 21, the earth and the sun will again sync up for the winter solstice as the shortest day of the year that also ushers in a turning point that promises the restoration of increased light, the “sun’s annual rebirth.” I can imagine humankind, and probably animal and plant life as well, somehow at least subconsciously sensing a cosmic pivot.
As our historic era sways on an unsteady and unpredictable axis there is something reassuring in our awareness that there is also a solid reality in our lives such as the solstice. The idea of the solstice evokes - or probably should evoke - a sense of awe and wonder, of something scientifically explainable yet still a wondrous mystery. We can’t “see” the solstice, but we trust its existence and the power of life and death it has over our planet, and we trust that its influence will ultimately be redemptive and life-giving as it begins the process of reviving and renewing life itself.
I am often concerned these days that our consciousness is too small in terms of time and the cycles of life. We live, after all, in a mindset that favors the short term - three month stock predictions that define economic value and stability; ever-present pending election cycles; and a sense that climate sustainability and democracy are now somehow time-constrained as is life itself. It is quite understandable that we must live within our constrictive constructs of time, and I don’t want to judge our limitations. But neither do I want to accept these limitations as the ultimate reality. The most difficult part of Covid for most of us, of course, is that our sense of time and order has been disrupted.
In terms of constricted time, I think both the conservative and liberal mindset these days has become increasingly apocalyptic (“resembling the end of the world; momentous or catastrophic”). The more an apocalyptic attitude prevails the more fearful and hopeless we will become and the more unlikely we will be to sustain life as we now know it. I am not proposing a cheap sense of hope that relies on magic or naiveté, but I do believe there is a cosmic creation that is somehow related to a redemptive love that I can trust in the epochal movement of creation, and I want to encourage all of us to engage with wonder and gratitude in that reality.
Our fate as a species is grounded in the secular structures of hours, days and years, yet we also can have an awareness of the timeless sacred. Of course we are most aware of the secular realities of meeting basic needs, of our humble efforts to make meaning out of the confusions and threats during times like these, and of trying to live responsible, ethical lives of mutual respect and support. But I think our full humanity demands that we culture and practice a sacred consciousness - sometimes called prayer or simply presence - if our lives are to be not only fulfilling but whole, full of a “peace that passes understanding,” a shalom.
I often read the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi, who specialized in the study of the Hebrew prophets through the lens of the Holocaust. I receive great encouragement and wisdom from his ultimate recognition that religious practice is essentially a practice of awe and wonder, and our humanity is largely defined by our capacity to live in close relationship with the ultimate Mystery that transcends our understanding. He represents for me a human “solstice” that revives light out of despair and darkness.
I realize all this may be a stretch for my reader’s sensibility and imagination, but I hope the solstice metaphor can be a reminder that there is a reality that is more awesome than our our limited consciousness. I don’t affirm this as a matter of faith; rather I mean it to be an affirmation of the expansive and timeless sacredness of the Creation of which we are so privileged to experience in spite of our humble limits of knowledge and wisdom.
Blessings in the week ahead filled with family, friends, traditions, rituals, and, please, some great joy!
What Is the Winter Solstice?
The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.” So, loosely translated, it means “sun stand still.” Why? For a few days before and after the solstice, the Sun’s path across the sky appears to freeze. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still. The day after the winter solstice, the Sun’s path begins to advance northward again, eventually reaching its most northerly point on the day of the summer solstice.
The winter solstice marks the official beginning of astronomical winter (as opposed to meteorological winter, which starts about three weeks prior to the solstice). The winter solstice occurs once a year in each hemisphere: once in the Northern Hemisphere (in December) and once in the Southern Hemisphere (in June). It marks the start of each hemisphere’s winter season. When one hemisphere is experiencing their winter solstice, the other is simultaneously experiencing their summer solstice!
This is all thanks to Earth’s tilted axis, which makes it so that one half of Earth is pointed away from the Sun and the other half is pointed towards it at the time of the solstice.
We often think of the winter solstice as an event that spans an entire calendar day, but the solstice actually lasts only a moment. Specifically, it’s the exact moment when a hemisphere is tilted as far away from the Sun as it can be. This is shown in the diagram below.
The solstices and equinoxes from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: NASA
The winter solstice holds significance across a variety of cultures, as it signals the changing of the seasons. Some ancient peoples even marked the solstice using huge stone structures, like Newgrange in Ireland. In some cultures, the solstice traditionally marked the midway point of the season rather than the start of it, which explains why holidays such as Midsummer Day are celebrated around the first day of summer.
Then, as summer advances toward winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets advance southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day. It’s a never-ending cycle!