“The solstice is the time when light is born out of the womb of winter’s darkness.” So writes Mara Freeman in her book entitled, Kindling A Celtic Spirit As a Celtic Christian, I have been celebrating the winter solstice since my first pilgrimage to Ireland in 2008.
Of course, the solstice is an astronomical event. Happening around December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth is at its farthest point from the sun, giving us the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Because the Earth is tilted, the sun appears to us to “stand still.” Our ancient forbears must have at first observed this phenomenon with some amount of fear. Would the sun continue to move away from the Earth plunging the planet into perpetual darkness?
It is no wonder then that rituals, celebrations and feasts were created to welcome back the light. Fires were built on hilltops and our forbears danced and chanted hymns to awaken the sun lest there be an endless winter. Across Europe and the world there are ancient monuments which many believe were created to mark the solstices.
I had the incredible experience to visit one such monument, Newgrange, in Ireland in 2008. Believed to be a burial site (human cremains have been found in its interior), Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the rising sun at the winter solstice. On mornings during that time, a beam of light penetrates through a box on the top of the roof. It travels through a nineteen-meter passage and into an inner chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens so that the whole chamber is dramatically illuminated. For visiting tourists they have recreated the solstice light electronically. It was an awesome experience to be standing in absolute darkness and then suddenly to be bathed in light. The light enabled us to see that we were in a cave-like structure with walls illuminated with ancient depictions of spirals. It would be incredible to actually be inside the Newgrange monument at the time of the winter solstice.
Our ancient forbears saw in the cosmic event of the winter solstice the death of the old sun and the birth of an infant sun. The Christian church however, marks this time of year to celebrate the birth of the “Light from Light” Jesus Christ, the Son of God. While I certainly celebrate that fact on Christmas Eve and Day, my experience in Ireland inspired me to create my own ritual of welcoming the light back around the time of winter solstice. I celebrate the winter solstice to better align myself with the movement of the Earth and the rest of the cosmos as well as with “ancient ones,” my own ancestors. Additionally, a solstice celebration also gives me a special connection and reminder of my own Christian faith.
In medieval Christianity, the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus was a multi-layered mystery and celebration of the Holy Trinity. Three divine births were celebrated. At the midnight mass, on December 24, the birth of the Word in the Godhead was celebrated. At the first mass at the break of day, the birth of Jesus out of the womb of Mary was celebrated. A mass was also celebrated midday on Christmas Day, celebrating the birth of the divine in the soul of the individual Christian. Over the years, the church has emphasized only one of the birthing stories, that of the child Jesus. The winter solstice service I have crafted explores the other two birthing stories as gives thanks for the light of the Trinity and the light of Christ within humanity.
What follows are some of the elements I will use for my celebration of the solstice this year as I gather with friends in my home. You may wish to do something similar.
Weather permitting, we will first gather outdoors in darkness to light a small fire. Participants are invited to bring a stick or small piece of wood to make the fire. The fire will be lit and blessed. A script that I use comes in part from one written by Edward Hayes in his book, Prayers of a Planetary Pilgrim.
“Blessed are you, God of all creation. You have called us out of darkness into light. Let us bless the sacred solstice fire. We pray on this night of ancient fear, remembering our ancestors who feared what was outside the ring of fire of light and warmth: all evil, disease, death, beasts that might destroy them. As we bless this fire, we ask God who is the fullness of light, to protect each of us from what we fear most. May we be encircled by the mystery of fire, by the warmth of the light and love of God, by the flames of our friendship with one another. May we who gather this night be protected from all harm and disease, all evil and wickedness.
We will then gather indoors and share the light with one another by lighting a wreath of candles saying,
Arise, shine, for the rays of God’s glory touch the earth. We welcome the light that burns in the rising sun. We welcome the light that dawns through the Holy Child of God. We welcome the light that gleams through the growing earth. We welcome the light that shines through saints and signs.
We welcome the light you kindle in our souls.
–A Holy Island Prayer Book, Ray Simpson
We will share readings from the Prologue of John’s Gospel 1:1-15 using The Message by Eugene Peterson. There will be a reading from the contemporary Celtic tradition by John Philip Newell. From the medieval tradition we will hear a reading by Meister Eckhart. We will share music and other prayers together and then enjoy a dessert and tea.
Taking a holy pause one night around the solstice is a beautiful way to align our hearts and souls with God and God’s creation. As we approach the longest night of the year, may yours be blessed with the knowledge and blessing of God’s light.
“Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of love that never ceases that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Amen.”
–St. Columba, A Holy Island Prayer Book, Ray Simpson
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