Tuesday, December 21, 2021


In our Northern Hemisphere, 11:59 a.m. today marks the winter solstice - the day when the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun, when the sun seems at its lowest in the sky, the day with the shortest length of daylight and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Historically, it is no accident that we do not celebrate Christmas in June when the sun is high and the days are long, but rather now when the world is at its darkest and the light seems so precious a gift from above.

Given the widespread displacement of the Christmas Liturgy to Christmas Eve and the understandable appeal and popularity of "candlelight" Christmas services, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the liturgical symbolism of Christmas is connected not with celebrating darkness but is rather a celebration of light - the light of Christ coming to illuminate our sinful world just as the "the unconquered sun" conquers winter's darkness.

Whether or not Christmas was explicitly assigned to its date in order to correspond to the Roman dies natalis solis invicti, the theme of the light illuminating darkness has always been central to the traditional imagery of Christmas. Thus, the Introit for the traditional second (Dawn) Mass of Christmas began Lux fulgebit hodie super nos ("A light will shine upon us this day" - Isaiah 9:2), while the Alleluia verse for the traditional principal Christmas Mass (during the day) proclaimed quia hodie descendit lux magna super terram ("for this day a great light has descended upon the earth").

The light is indeed coming, but it comes to us who are in the dark. Hence the abiding beauty of this winter season and its imagery, expressed, for example, in this familiar poem and carol.

In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
Photo: In the Bleak Midwinter, as first published in Scribner's Monthly (January 1972) 

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