Monday, December 20, 2010


This year, the darkest date of the year will be even darker than usual, thanks to the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, beginning around 12:30 a.m. tomorrow. Lunar eclipses happen with some frequency, but tomorrow's will apparently be the first recorded lunar eclipse to coincide with the winter solstice since 1638. (There will be a shorter wait for the next one on December 21, 2094 – but I am not expecting to be around for it!).

The lunar eclipse certainly adds something to the experience of the longest night of the year. Unlike Easter, however, which is directly dependent on the cycle of the moon as it intersects with the solar cycle of the seasons, Christmas itself is connected solely with the solar cycle and specifically with the winter solstice. The 4th century assignment of the Roman Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25 is widely believed to have been a successful adaptation of a pre-Christian Roman winter solstice festival. This was not the famous Saturnalia – a week-long Roman festival of revelry and merriment that began on December 17 and has contributed much to our treasury of Christmas traditions – including gift-giving and evergreen decorations. It was, however, a more explicitly winter solstice festival on December 25, “the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun” (Dies natalis solis invicti), itself introduced into the Roman imperial calendar relatively late (in A.D. 273), that likely became the basis for the Roman date of Christmas. (In the Julian calendar in force until the 16th century’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, December 25 was reckoned as the date of the winter solstice). The winter solstice is, by definition, the darkest day of the year – the shortest day and the longest night. Very quickly after the solstice, however, one begins to notice how the days start gradually getting longer. Hence, the two key elements of the festival’s title – the birthday of the unconquered Sun.

With the 4th century triumph of Christianity over Roman paganism, it was a simple step to replace the celestial sun with Christ the Lord. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays [Malachi 3:20].

The brilliant illumination of our homes, streets, and city skylines during this darkest time of the year apparently taps into something deeply rooted in human experience throughout the northern hemisphere. The fear and anxiety associated almost universally with long, dark nights are fought off by our holiday lighting - symbolic of the more substantive victory of Christ, the light of the world [John 8:12] whose birth we celebrate in lieu of celebrating the winter solstice.

As I said in my homily yesterday, there is a good reason why we don’t celebrate Christmas in June, when the sun is high and the days are bright and long - why we celebrate Christmas in December, when the days are dark and short. For we celebrate Christmas in a chaotic and perplexing, often threatening and frightening world, where the bright light of God’s own life among us seems hidden in darkness (like Joseph’s dream). Jesus Christ, the sun of justice and the light of the world, is, however, God’s dream for the salvation of the world, the divine dream that brightens even the densest darkness. That is why Christmas remains so necessary, as well as wonderful.

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