Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Sensation of a Solstice

Ever since moving to Amsterdam -- 52 degrees and 22 minutes north of the Equator -- this day has been an important day on the calendar: the 21st of December... the Winter Solstice.

There's simply no getting around it. The natural phenomenon of the Earth's revolution around the sun has a visceral effect on an Amsterdammer. The darkness creeps in on the day, like a dark fox hunting its helpless prey, circling in on the sunrise and sunset each day from June to December. It's unnoticeable at first, just a few minutes here, a few minutes there... But as the apex of darkness draws ever closer, the sensation is attacking, strangling, overwhelming. These days, we must will ourselves to get out of bed at the "usual time" -- even though the sun will do no such thing until hours later -- and again we are forced to don safety lights in the middle of the afternoon, as we ride our bicycles to complete a day which the sun is content to finish hours before us.

Ironically, when the winter solstice arrives -- the shortest day of the year -- it is actually a time for celebration. Not celebration because the day is so temporary, so weak, so dim... but celebration because it's the beginning of the end. From this day forward, each day becomes a little bit longer, a little bit lighter. And such a realization is a subtly significant source of hope.

To be honest, I can understand why the pagan religions of northern Europe -- the Norse, the Celts, the Druids, and whatnot -- celebrated the winter solstice as a holy day. And even though Christians are sometimes criticized for adopting such pagan holy days for their own holy days, I can understand why early Christians decided to appoint Christmas to fall roughly around the same time as the winter solstice. The parallels are beautiful.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of hopes for a coming Messiah in the following way: "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine." Zechariah the priest, just a generation before Jesus echoed Isaiah's prophecy, saying, "Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace." The first chapter of John metaphorically speaks of Jesus as "the light (that) shines in the darkness." And Jesus himself later spoke of himself as "the light of the world..."

Anticipation and renewal and hope -- such natural responses to the beginning of darkness's end at this time of the year -- found their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Light of the world.

So... Happy Solstice. And Merry Christmas.


At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Gerard said...

Wow Eric, great ode to the 21st of December! It is cool how you discribe what actually happens this day. I always celebrate this wonderful event. The Light comes back, days get longer, deep deep inside Nature starts to live again, after a season of dying it is time to rise! Though it is a short day; it is a day full of hope.
A wonderful day to be born!

At 5:16 AM, Blogger e.e. said...

I shared your thoughts with some friends at my Christmas party, and they enjoyed!


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