This week in the Northern Hemisphere, we marked the winter solstice. It is that moment in the astronomical calendar when the north pole has its maximum tilt away from the sun, and when the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation. It is the longest night of the year. Beginning on the day after solstice, daylight gradually lengthens. Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been significant in many cultures, especially agrarian-based societies, and is observed with festivals and rituals.
This week is also Christmas when millions of Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, a time of unimaginable religious and historic ironies, when a child humbly born in a stable to unwed parents is believed to be Redeemer of all humankind. Jesus is often referred to as the Light of the World. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-5)
Light plays a central role in the Christmas story (i.e., the star of Bethlehem, reportedly visible this week after an 800-year hiatus) and also in other religious festivals during this season, including Hannukah, and Kwanzaa. (Diwali, the festival of lights symbolizing the victory of good over evil is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains earlier in the fall, usually between mid-October and mid-November.)
At first, the title of this post, “Listen to the Light” seems like an oxymoron: Don’t you “see” light and “hear” sound? How can you hear light? While technically true, sometimes the darkness is so profound or the light so illuminating that its brightness floods the senses. If there is ever a time when we need such a profound infusion of light, it is in the year 2020, complete with its divisive politics, its racial reckoning, its threats to democracy and its horrific experience with coronavirus.
There is one aspect of the solstice that is especially relevant in this pandemic year. The light and warmth that comes in succeeding days—while gradually growing—is preceded by a long, dark winter. In times past, the winter season was filled with hardships and the months of January to April were often known as “famine months.” Likewise for Christians, the light that came into the world at Jesus’ birth took three decades to be fully revealed. The lesson: hope must coexist with forbearance.
So too, in a week that saw an increasing number of front-line workers and senior citizens being vaccinated, the end of our pandemic nightmare is not over. There is a long period of suffering and death ahead that requires continued vigilance. But it is essential to hold fast to the light that breaks forth in this season. It is vital that we listen for those flickers of brightness poised to free us from the darkness we’ve experienced. It is crucial that we cherish those embers that will eventually burn brightly and allow us to gather again among family, friends and whole communities.
So, attend to the whispers of light that fill our dark days and feel the confidence echoed in the celebrations of light—solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali—until the dark night of 2020 recedes into memory. And in the coming daylight, grasp onto the vision of a better time for us all. On this day, in this season, may we listen to the light, celebrate the hope, share the kindness, seek justice and reflect on the possibilities of newness that is to come. May this be true for each of you—and may you have a blessed Christmas and a peace-filled New Year.