Christ be our light! Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ be our light! Shine in your Church
Shepherd of the Valley Parish Church is punctuated with high overhead windows, and during the course of Sunday Mass, a stream of sunlight light makes subtle passes across the sanctuary, washing the walls, the ambo, and the altar in successive moments. This gentle interplay of light and shadow in a very quiet way evokes the mystery of Christmas.
Moderns find it hard to understand the dread so often associated with the final days of the year. But in earlier times the onset of winter promised little good. “The times are nightfall,’ the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes. “Look, their light grows less; The times are winter, watch, a world undone…” For most people throughout history, the onset of winter was a downward spiral of nature in which humankind appeared to be the loser.
During the first weeks of December the days become progressively shorter, decreasing daylight by several minutes every twenty-four hours. At noon on the day of the winter solstice the sun is lower in the sky than any other time of the year. But at that very moment, something changes. In succeeding days the sun wondrously restores itself. Slowly at first and then more and more apparent, the fiery orb passes higher and higher across the sky. The days become longer and the earth is less chill.
For most of the Christian era, Winter Solstice occurred on December 25th. Interestingly enough, the earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. Nor did they show much concern about assigning the date of Christ’s birth. The solitary high feast of the Church year in the first three centuries was the Easter Triduum. Only when the liturgical calendar was broadened in the fourth century was the winter solstice chosen as the day on which to honor Christ’s birth.
The winter solstice is seldom noticed today. The retreat and advance of the sun have little meaning in a world that blasts away darkness with the wattage of our homes, streets, and parking lots. Through most of human history, however, work in town, home, and field began at sunrise and the precious hours –constantly changing in length — were jealously guarded. In a world in which daily life depended on natural illumination, even slight changes of sunlight and darkness were evident.
Our Christian ancestors therefore found it natural to invest symbolic meaning in the moment in which light so visibly triumphs over darkness. This perspective is still reflected in the prayers of the Feast of the Nativity. The sacred liturgies of that day tell of “the new sun now shining.” and describes how “the darkness that covered the earth has given way to the bright dawn of your Word made flesh.” The Church prays that all followers of Christ may be made “a people of this light.” The Christmas Day the Gospel of St. John evokes Christ as “the light that shines in the darkness…the light which could not be overcome …the real light which gives life to every human being…”
For over twelve hundred years, the celebration of the winter solstice and Christmas coincided. This changed in the 16th century when as a revision of the calendar caused the winter solstice to be moved forward three days while the date of Christmas was left unchanged.
Christmas has yet to come. But as the light and shadows play across the sanctuary in the next few weeks, the sun will be riding ever closer to the horizon until with the Christmas solstice it once again arises, a fitting symbol of the eternal presence of Christ, the light shining in the darkness that could not be overcome.