By Ellen Haroutunian —
Most people are aware that the winter solstice (for the Northern Hemisphere) marks the shortest day of the year as the North Pole tilts the farthest away it will be from the sun. The word solstice means “sun standing,” named as such because for a few days the sun appears to rise and set from the very same place. There seems to be a pause, a time of waiting in the dark. Then slowly the sun begins her journey back towards the south. The days lengthen and the light and warmth return. From the beginning of civilization there have been rituals of merriment to celebrate that we have survived the long, cold darkness. The sun is joyfully welcomed back.
Solstice celebrations have grown in popularity today even for many people who may not have ethnic or religious roots in the tradition. It’s a lovely way to recognize the wonder and beauty of the planet we live on and marvel at the dance of the earth around the sun. To be fair, some of us are just glad to know we will not to have to go to work and come home again in the dark much longer.
There’s another reason to be glad for solstice celebrations. They reflect something from our ancient past that we have lost in our sophisticated, scientific age. Pre-modern people who celebrated solstice (and other natural phenomena) lived immersed in a sense of an enchanted world. They were aware of something larger than themselves, something that infused all of the earth—its abundant fertility, its powerful forces that both terrified and awed, and its creatures that nourished, warmed and fascinated. Everything pulsated with life. No wonder there were so many stories of faeries and sprites and goblins. What else could explain so much magic? Not the gods alone.
Early Greek philosophers created their own framework of understanding of this magical realm. Plato, for example, believed that physical reality in which we live was a mere shadow that reflected an ultimate reality to which we could aspire. In very (very) simple summary, the idea that the stuff of Earth was lesser than the spiritual realm brought about the problem of dualism, in which matter and spirit were seen to be separate and unequal. That has led to a disdain for the material world, particularly the body. We still see the impact of that perception after two millennia, within Christianity as well. But the point here is, ancient people believed that there was more to their reality than just the material world.
The early Christian mothers and fathers expanded upon Greek thought and redefined it in terms of a Christian worldview, or a sacramental ontology. In this view, all created objects find their reality and identity in the eternal word of God and are sacraments that participate in the mystery of the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ. Maximus the Confessor taught that prior to the coming of Christ, the Word of God, his incarnation had already begun in creation—everything was understood to be a little word of God, the logoi. Creation was understood to be a sacramental sharing or participation in the life of God. Therefore, there was a deep awareness of meaning beyond the self, and a sense of connectedness to God and all things. The transcendent telos (purpose, aim) of the human person was understood to already be embedded within us.
Later came the Reformation and Enlightenment, during which human reason became the sole source of knowing. Body and mind were separated from soul. Creation was separated from Creator. No longer was the cosmos seen as enchanted by Presence. It was reduced to dead rocks to be studied. Faith became beliefs and cognitions to which we must assent. The world was disenchanted. There was no larger meaning to be found beyond the materiality of nature.
When we separate creation from Creator, ‘from whom, through whom and in whom everything is,’ (Rom. 11:36) we are forced to locate a creature’s significance—its truth, goodness, and beauty—in itself. And the significance of the Earth is also only located only in itself. Meaning is no longer connected to anything larger than us; it is merely relative to whatever strikes the fancy. The rich and the powerful all decide what is true and good and beautiful now. The religion that was meant to raise our sights and awaken our hearts has been ensnared and diminished through conflation with political or financial interests.
Without any larger inherent worth, it’s no wonder we treat people as disposable, and the Earth as a commodity. In doing so, we are also disconnected from our ultimate telos, or purpose and end. We grasp futilely at any depth of meaning, and have reduced faith to an escape plan, only available to the worthy.
The cure for our ‘throwaway’ culture, therefore, is to recognize that God is present throughout the world, drawing it (along with us) back to its ultimate and glorious destiny in him. It is to develop eyes to see once again the sacramental nature of all reality. That will take a spiritual awakening, the means of which, fortunately, is already within our tradition as well. There’s another whole blog post there.
This is why I rejoice at the celebration of the solstice. My scientific mind knows it’s just about the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, and of course I know the Earth keeps moving so we will see more light and warmth again. But my heart sees the heart of other humans that know their utter dependence on and relatedness to creation. In solstice celebrators I see the longing of human beings for hope that sustains, for meaning and life that is rooted in something greater than themselves. I see what is already embedded within the human heart from ancient days—a deep awareness of the reality of God. Postmodern people have much to learn, or more accurately, to re-learn from premodern folks.
The longing of the human heart was answered by the incarnation of God’s own Self, uniting matter and spirit, heaven and earth, Creator and creature, forever. However, in this postmodern era, finding genuine meaning once again eludes most people, even or sometimes especially Christians. Therefore, in this age of disorientation, honing our spiritual senses—the sense of the sacramental nature of all reality and the longing for union with God that God has already endowed us with—can orient us to what is True, Good, and Beautiful again, not as the well-articulated arguments or propositions of modernity, but as the Person who is the Source, the active sustainer, and the longed for consummation of all things.
You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 2:19).