As a child, at this time of year I would wake up in the dark, ride the schoolbus in the dark, and even have first recess outside in the morning in the dark. By 9:30AM the sky would turn from black to dark blue and eventually a rosy color by 10:30AM. The sun would peak up over the Chugach Mountains to the south around 11:30. Then as I rode the bus home the sun would be setting just a few peaks down from where it rose, the sky would turn rosy-pink and be dark again by 5PM. If you think handling that limited amount of daylight is hard, just try living in Barrow, Alaska. Their sun sat on November 19th, over a month ago. It will rise again on January 24th, 2012. I encourage you to see the calendar for Barrow’s sunrise and sunset and understand how quickly the light/darkness ratio changes throughout the year here. It’s pretty amazing.
While Christmas is celebrated around the world, when one travels north of the 45th parallel, one truly understands how Christmas began as a solstice celebration (this year it is at 12:30AM on December 22nd) in the northern pagan cultures of Europe. Ironically, during winter in the Northern Hemisphere is actually when the earth is closest to the sun, but the tilt of our earth is what gives us our seasons, and gives us winter when we are over two million kilometers closer. But it is the darkest time of the year for us in the north, and one understands the need for light to return to the world and to our lives. And we should also remember that while Hanukkah is not nearly as big of a holiday to Jews as Christmas is to us Christians, it is also a celebration of light in a time of darkness at this time of year (and Hanukkah of course begins at sundown tonight).
The prophet Isaiah wrote over fifteen hundred years ago “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” in chapter 60. Isaiah was writing to a people returning from the exile, described as a time of darkness for the people and for the land. The light has come to them; and yet Isaiah writes that the people of Israel themselves have become the light, as other nations will be drawn to them.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we remember that our Christian celebrations could not take place without our ancestors of other faiths and traditions that started worshipping and celebrating at this time of year, recognizing the promise of light returning to the earth and to their lives. We remember the darkness of the exile and that light symbolized the promise of the hope of return for the people in the days of Isaiah. We remember what the coming of Jesus meant to the first-century peoples in the darkest times of the Roman Empire. What does the returning of light to our world mean to us today? In what darkness have we been exiled to? What light do we desire to return to our lives and our world?
And in seeing how during the winter in the north, the earth draws closest to the sun during the darkest time, does our faith journey have any parallels? At times has our faith been fragile, trembling with doubts and fears, but when we look back, we can finally see how close God has been?
We sometimes read the words of John 1:3-5 at Christmastime: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Isaiah teaches us that while God is bringing the light to us, we become the light to the world. As Christ becomes the light, then we become the light sent out into the world of darkness.
For Christians, let us celebrate the birth of Jesus, but let us not forget all the others who are celebrating and who came before us recognizing that the light is returning to our world. Let us work with others to be the light of the world, to bring hope and healing, as we prepare to enter the New Year. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and now, you are the light to the world. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, and Happy Holidays.