Monday, December 21, 2009

The Solstice and the Sun

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune weather page said that the winter solstice arrives at 11:47 this morning. Which brings to mind the heartwarming holiday message to be found at the Illinois State Capitol, courtesy of the "Freedom from Religion Foundation":
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

Can't you just feel the “Peace on earth, Good Will toward men”?

Seriously, it is tantalizingly easy to focus on the Grinchy tone of these reasonable people. Maybe the message is intended to provoke a sharp response that will only prove how hardhearted and intellectually enslaved believers are. I do wonder, though, about a group that claims to be marking the Winter Solstice, but describes their observance through a series of negations. It must be hard to get excited about the Solstice in a culture with electricity.

One thing they're right about though: Light really is the “reason for the season.” The one whose birthday we celebrate on December 25 claimed to be “the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12). New Testament writers were piling on the solar imagery way before there was any thought of establishing a liturgical date for the birth of the Light of the World, much less baptizing the Winter Solstice or the Roman Saturnalia.

Not that the early Christians were shy about making the connection with the Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”)--and that, early on: "O, how wonderfully did Providence act that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born." (St. Cyprian †253). The Christmas-Solstice conjunction dates far earlier than our earliest liturgical calendar reference to December 25 (circa 336) would have us believe.

But was the Solstice the origin of the date of Christmas? That's an open question.

The ancient world endowed dates with a mystical significance. For example, it was believed that the “perfect” span of life began and ended on the same date. It is just possible that the starting point for calculating the date of the Lord's birth was the date of his death. And that we can determine with relative precision, since it took place over the feast of Passover. Hippolytus of Rome (170-236) connects the Passover date of 14 Nisan with March 25 of the Roman calendar. Tertullian (160-225) tells us that it was “the eighth day before the Kalends of April.” A liturgical calendar from the year 243 notes that same day, March 25, as the day of the Annunciation to Mary, and hence, of the conception of Jesus: his coming to be in the flesh (appropriately enough, nine months before Christmas). This date was, in turn, considered to be the anniversary of the fourth day of creation. (Significantly, the day God created the sun.)

By the fourth century, the Syrian deacon-poet Ephrem was drawing on a well-established tradition when he sang, “In December, when the seed is hidden in the earth, there sprouted forth from the Womb the Ear of Life.... In March when the lambs bleat in the wilderness, into the Womb the Paschal Lamb entered!” (Hymn III on the Nativity); “The Sun rendered worship, doing Him homage by his Magi;--in his worshippers he worshipped Him” (Hymn XIV).

But this world won't believe that Jesus is its light unless his disciples themselves shine enough to brighten the world around them. To the extent that we fail, our pagan contemporaries are right to try to celebrate whatever sources of light they can find. And, as long as they do, our mission as believers is spelled out for us, because we are not yet mirroring Christ to the world; He has yet to be fully born in us.

So go ahead and celebrate the Solstice: we'll join you. We'll even bring the hot cocoa. Because anything in nature that can be celebrated can (and will and probably already is) celebrated with a Christian twist. We can find Jesus everywhere, because “all things came to be in him” (Jn 1:3).

But would you mind not being so Grinchy about our Christ-Mass?

This post was prepared for the Chicago Tribune's blog, "The Seeker." If it gets posted there, please comment on the Trib site. Thanks!