Within Our Darkest Night

+ A reflection around the Winter Solstice written on December 22, 2014 +

“Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away” (Taizé song)

There have been many times in my life where someone has told me that the celebration of Christmas was silly or even non-Christian as it was simply an appropriation of the pagan festival of Saturnalia. This ancient Roman festival centers around the winter solstice and the celebration of the increase of light in the world by giving gifts and feasting.  The argument is that the Christians essentially stole this celebration and made it their own, but at it’s core Christmas is just another festival of the Winter Solstice. The truth is that this really doesn’t matter to me.

Think about it. During the month of December many Northern Hemisphere religions celebrate the return of light in the world and mark the darkest times. The Druids in England mark the sunrise after the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge. The Jewish people light an increasing number of candles over eight nights and celebrate God’s lasting presence during Chanukkah. The Norse religion celebrated the rebirth of the sun god at Yule or Jul. Even Christian groups celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia (called the light-bearer) on December 13, which was the date of the Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar. Cultures around the world have longed for the presence of the divine light in our darkest times.

In reality, there is no historical reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25. He could have just as likely have been born on March 28, April 6, July 14, or any other day. In fact, there are reasons to believe that Jesus was not born in December at all. But my point is, none of that really matters. I think if Christmas is simply celebrating Jesus’ birthday as a historical event we are truly missing the point.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV)

At Christmas, we don’t simply mark a historical fact.  It’s something far greater than that.  We celebrate the coming of our light that Christians find in Jesus Christ. We celebrate the true God becoming truly human and walking among us. We celebrate an end to our darkness and despair. This desire for the divine light is not unique to Christians but is shared by people of all faiths. This desire is especially poignant at the darkest time of the year.

For me it almost makes sense to celebrate Christmas near the Solstice, especially as we have no better historical date from which to choose.  We too can celebrate the coming of the new sun during the darkest nights of the year.  We also rejoice in the new dawn bringing longer days.  We light candles in the darkness and wait for the coming of the one whom the Gospel of John calls the Light: Immanuel, God with us.

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