a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, December 22, 2019
The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere happened last night at 11:19 PM Eastern Standard Time. We’re used to holidays and other special days filling a day, like Christmas – or multiple days, like Chanukah. But the winter solstice fills only our imaginations. There is no day of solstice, no hour of solstice, no minute of silence provided by the cosmos, in which the turning happens. There is no there there. There is only before and after this turning point within the mind, seen from a specific geographic standpoint. It has captivated humanity because, even in the absence of anything at all, change comes – from lessening daylight to increasing daylight. And in the southern hemisphere, the experience is the opposite. Yet a solstice happens at the exact same instant for everyone everywhere on earth. You could not see or hear or taste smell or touch it. And you could observe it only by observing around it, before and after, over a long observation period. And yet that turning changes what is possible. Ponder that. And if I stopped right here, you would have gotten a whole sermon.
Solstices occur because Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted about 23.4 degrees relative to Earth’s orbit around the sun. This tilt is what drives our planet’s seasons, as the Northern and Southern Hemispheres get unequal amounts of sunlight over the course of a year. From March to September, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted more toward the sun, driving its spring and summer. From September to March, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away, so it feels autumn and winter. The Southern Hemisphere’s seasons are reversed.
On two instants each year—what we call solstices—Earth’s axis is tilted most closely toward the sun. The hemisphere tilted most toward our home star sees its longest day, while the hemisphere tilted away from the sun sees its longest night. During the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice—which always falls around June 21—the Southern Hemisphere gets its winter solstice. Likewise, during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice—which falls around December 22—the Southern Hemisphere gets its summer solstice.
From the fact that it seemed to ancients that the sun stood still briefly in this change, we get the word solstice. “Sol” is the Latin for sun, and “sistere,” meaning to stand still. Because at the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to stand still; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before seeming to reversing direction. But it doesn’t really stand still any more than the sun actually rises and sets. It is a function of terrestrial perspective. In space, there is no solstice. There is only the movement of a planet with a tilted axis around star. A solstice is a terrestrial experience, an earthly perspective, not a cosmic event.
The drama comes in the before and after. The seasonal lessening possibility for the flourishing of life gives way to a new season’s renewal of possibility.
I learned about solstices and equinoxes in school, but it never really sunk in. Then as a young adult, when I found myself an exile from the church I was raised in and no longer able to believe what I had been taught was literally true, I sidled my way up to the Winter Solstice as a “real” holiday, as opposed to all those other holidays that are specific to a single cultural, historical, political or religious experience. The solstices and equinoxes, as well as the moon phases, these seemed to be cosmic events. Facts rather than beliefs or chauvinistic holidays celebrating the nation. A solstice is scientific, not a matter of opinion. And it returns regularly, after millennia and millennia and millennia, the same event. I found a purity in that that I couldn’t find much anywhere else in those years. And so, at an age where I was just beginning to send holiday or year’s end greetings to family, friends, and colleagues around the globe, it was a solstice missive I sent, rather than Christmas and New Year’s greetings. My family thought I was just being perverse.
But I also knew that the ancients had some magical and weird beliefs about the solstice. I say I knew, but I mean I had read. And what you read is as reliable as its writer and the culture within which the writer knows or presents what they know and the medium through which you receive it. So I kind of knew that the distant ancients thought that if they did not do their bit of ritual and magic as the sun went away that it would not come back. In their minds, I had learned, the continuance of humanity depended on the magic that brought the sun back.
I think about this now and think, just how dumb did those writers think we were? How lacking in basic intellectual and observational capacities did they think our distant yet fully human ancestors were that they thought a bit of magic would bring the sun back, or that they thought the sun would ever not come back. I think about it now and think that that kind of ignorance has to be imagined and created and learned. It is not part of the natural world. But the anthropologists, on the basis of scant or no evidence, interpreted a scenario that must have been in order to fill gaps they imagined and to match up with much later-created myths.
This extrapolation seems to me rather like an imaginitive interpretation of one of the archaeologists Walter and I were on a dig with in Jordan in the summer of 1991. She was a lovely person and quite proper, a professor in a Seventh Day Adventist college. But in her field of expertise in ancient Middle Eastern art, she found herself in a quandary. The female statuettes she found and studied were, to her eyes, shocking, as they had exposed genitalia. Generally such statuettes are thought of as fertility goddess figurines. But this academic couldn’t accept their uncovered genitals, so she found an explanation. The figurines weren’t depicting a naked goddess but one with a genital shield covering the very thing it appeared to be displaying.
Well, she didn’t convince me. It was far too complex an explanation in the absence of evidence. But it was not that far off from the grasping explanation that requires us to believe that early humans, who came to human consciousness in community, somehow failed to notice that the world hadn’t ended every year of their life up to that point and suddenly became fearful that magic was necessary for what always happened on its own to continue happening.
Are we supposed to believe that those distant ancestors, who were sophisticated enough thinkers and precise enough observers to observe and calculate precisely the date of turning of the sun that they somehow believed that what had always happened no longer would happen if they did not follow prescribed actions? I’m not buying it. Those ancients were scientists and engineers. They observed celestial movements, accurately predicted them into the future, and built monuments and calendars that preserved this knowledge through time. And these are the ones who knew so little? Maybe their great grandchildren were more interested in storytelling than in transporting raw materials through forests to build monuments to their knowledge to last through time. But storytellers know what they are doing as their imagination produces narratives that they sing in community. There is simply no reason to believe that the descendents of scientists understood their own stories as providing the same kind of information as scientific observation did. What hubris to think that only industrial and post-industrial society knew from science and literary theory! Especially since contemporary American society includes flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and more. From a contemporary perspective, those ancients may have been more intelligent than we are. They certainly had bigger brains. Not as much knowledge had accumulated. But without telescopes they did complex calculations of the movements of stars and planets. And without power tools and bulldozers they made amazing monuments.
One of these monuments is Newgrange, a passage tomb in the Brú na Bóinne archaeological reserve some 30 miles north of Dublin, Ireland, accompanied on that landscape by Knowth and Dowth, passage tombs of the same sort, built with massive kerbstones transported from distant quarries and set it a circle, with fill from other locations. The site is amazing. Have any of your visited it? It was long a mystery of the Neolithic period how a society that has not left other monuments of this scope came together without the aid of technology we recognize to build these monuments now more than 5,000 years old. It is amazing that, given projected life expectancy on the Emerald Isle five millennia ago, most, if not all of the designers and builders would not have lived to see the project through to completion. It was the grandchildren of the original scientists and engineers who would have seen the inauguration of this monument. But the most amazing thing is that the passage into the heart of this monument is perfectly aligned with the direction of the sun on the sunrise on the morning nearest that momentary flash, that instant that touches the entire world. This morning at 4:19 AM Irish time, a shaft of light peered over the threshold stone and penetrated the darkness of the inner chamber of the Newgrange passage tomb, just as it has done each morning nearest the winter solstice for more than 5,200 years, without fail.
So believe what you will about the superstitions and magical beliefs of these ancients – what I choose to focus on is their scientific skill and dedication, the human effort to bring more light, to bring greater possibilities over time of increasing life spans and understanding of the world of mystery around us.
But at the same time my appreciation of those ancient scientists was developing, I was studying literary theory and history. My parent’s literalistic understanding of truth held that figurative truth must also be scientifically correct. Yet in my literary and cultural studies, I learned that narratives of myth, legend, fiction, and poetry have their own logic, their own ways of passing on insights within a specific cultural context. I was coming to see that it was no problem to see truth in stories that sprung solely from the imagination of an artist or of a culture. A novel can be true without telling historical facts. Creative narratives cannot be required to convey scientific understandings, but they still convey something important, some truth, whether they were transmitted orally or through ritual or through sacrosanct words ensconced in revered texts. We don’t ask scientists and engineers to choreograph the Nutcracker or Giselle or to write War and Peace or Porgy and Bess. Nor should we ask that a novelist or poet or myth writer to tell us of atoms and relativity. The rare person may have a foot in the artistic and scientific camps. But they are different languages with different intentions. So at the same time I was growing in my appreciation of the scientific method and the understanding and technical capability it supports, I was also growing in my theoretical understanding of narrative and in my learning to appreciate the many stories of the season that inspire our great and lowly arts.
In this poem by Ellen Dannin, for example, the natural play of light and dark finds specific cultural expression, not a mingling, but a meeting of science and imagination and tradition:
The seed, planted in the dark,
waiting in the dark of the year,
the seed drawn to the light,
the seed planted in the dark earth
by our own hands,
to be drawn from the earth by the light,
which will return.
Do the planted and the planter
wait in despair in the dark
for the return of the season of light?
What if, we think, the light did not return,
if we waited in the dark
and, at last, despaired of light?
We could almost forget, in our winter’s darkness,
that light will come again.
We light the lights in the dark of the year
that all is in readiness,
that we wait only for the warmth of light,
that even in the absence of light,
the work of creation is made ready.
Over decades of education and growth, I have come to see the solstice as emblematic of the human journey. Its very existence is ephemeral, fleeting, even constructed in a way that speaks to the mind’s need for a sense of duration. Yet, like a heartbeat or a drumbeat, it repeats and repeats and repeats over vast stretches of time and is the stuff of life. It can only be observed by a fuller view of what surrounds it, as seen over vast stretches of human experience and scientific observation. It inspires creativity and flights of emotion and spirit in ways that reach far beyond the literal, the scientific, the mechanical, and yet that is exactly where it is grounded. It happens at the same time and in the same way for the whole world, yet each culture tells it and passes it on in culturally specific and time-bound ways. It is a season of light displays and fires in the inglenook. Each expression specific to its cultural location. The solstice is us.
Amen and Happy Solstice!