Today is Winter Solstice; December 21, 2018. As I publish this post the North Pole will be positioned further away from the sun than at any other time in the year. When this occurs – precisely at 5:23 p.m. E.T. today – the sun will pause as Earth’s rotation in relationship to the sun allows slightly more daylight in the north. That means that today has less daylight – 9 hours and 5 minutes – making it the shortest day of the year, so to speak. Conversely, on June 21, 2019 – Summer Solstice – those of us in Michigan will enjoy 15 hours and 18 minutes of sunlight.
For all of us there are times when it seems that tomorrow will never come – as though the sun, or the earth, or time, or all three are standing still. Maybe it’s a medical diagnosis, a financial reversal, a death, or a broken relationship that makes it seem to you that things are at a standstill. During those times, when the night seems long and the wind is cold, there may seem to be little that one can do to bring about change.
Psalm 30:5 reminds us that during those times when, “weeping may endure for a night – joy comes in the morning.” This often-used Bible verse accentuates the power of Winter Solstice, or the “Dark Night of the Soul,” as 16th century poet, mystic, and monk St. John of the Cross wrote. For when it seems things are at their farthest from hope, the rotation of all things spiritual tilts us back toward the sun, the thaw, the long days of sunshine, swimming pools, and shorts.
5,200 years ago, before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, the ancients of Ireland built a passage tomb through which the sun’s first rays would shine the morning of Winter Solstice. This masterful bit of Stone Age engineering tells us that in a land not known for its sunshine, the neolithic inhabitants of Ireland built a monument that served as a symbol of hope. Newgrange is a tomb through which the promise of light and life comes breaking through at the year’s darkest moments. These early builders made a roof box, of sorts, through which the sun’s rays would pierce and then bisect the main chamber of the tomb.
One of the reasons that they had reason to hope is because they introduced farming to Ireland. Their immediate predecessors, those who lived during the mesolithic period, depended almost entirely on roaming and hunting for survival. They were displaced, actually, and the farmers came from Britain, bringing their technology along with pottery and larger, more permanent dwellings. Civilization is contagious by nature and pushes past efforts of resistance. Like wildfire spreading across the landscape the development of new and better ways of living life cannot be resisted for long.
Enter Newgrange in Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland. This cairn of stone and earth was quite an undertaking. Circles, spirals, arcs, chevrons and lozenges, adorn its stones. The concept and construction of Newgrange took ingenuity and fortitude – two things needed during the cold seasons of life.
Although death is certain and the struggle to survive is real, so is the warmth of the midwinter sun breaking through the cold darkness to remind us all that pain is not permanent and that death is eclipsed by life.