Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice is that magic moment when the sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North Pole, i.e., when the tilt of the earth’s axis is most inclined toward the sun in the northern hemisphere. It occurs during the night tonight, i.e., tomorrow morning, at 1:04 a.m. EDT. So tomorrow will be the longest day of the year, i.e., the 24-hour period with the longest period of daylight. (Above the Arctic Circle, of course, it will be uninterrupted daylight all day).
The traditional folkloric celebrations that surround the solstice – still very much a part of life in many places – are obviously pre-Christian in origin. Hence their popular appeal among modern neo-pagans (for example, at Stonehenge and elsewhere). But, just as Christmas was assigned its place in the Christian calendar to correspond to the Winter Solstice, the Summer Solstice (which in Roman times occurred on June 24) was long ago Christianized as St. John’s Day – The Nativity of John the Baptist, who, according to Luke 1, was born about six months before Jesus. (Thus, it was in connection with the Celebration of St. John’s Day that northern European "Midsummer’s Eve" customs such as bonfires made their way even into the popular culture of the Catholic southern hemisphere). 

The Church still celebrates St. John the Baptist on June 24. The connection with the Solstice survives, for example, in St. Augustine’s use of the Fourth Gospel’s reference to John the Baptist as a burning and shining lamp [John 5:35], so that (according to Augustine) “to a world held in the night of ignorance he might show forth the light of salvation, and amid the thickest darkness of sin might by his ray point out the most resplendent Sun of Justice” [Sermon 20 on the Saints].
There is, of course, another side to the Summer Solstice. Soon, the length of daylight will start to decrease again, just as after the Winter Solstice the length of daylight soon starts to increase. In my experience, you can begin to notice the slight  but certain change by around July 4. While the summer heat lasts - and lasts and lasts - much longer, the annual seasonal change is assured.

It was that familiar aspect of the Winter Solstice as the shortest day of the year after which the days immediately start to increase again that suggested it to the Romans as a holiday to celebrate "the Birth of the Unconquered Son," and that same imagery likely contributed to that date's transformation into Christmas. Unlike our more technological mentality, pre-modern sensibility more easily recognized and related to such imagery - linking the parallel seasonal celebrations of the two births of John and Jesus with their two complementary missions. And so somewhere in one of his sermons St. Augustine also made the connection between the days becoming shorter after John's birth and longer after Christmas with John's famous words about himself and Jesus and their respective missions, He must increase, but I must decrease [John 3:30].

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