Winter Solstice 2020

Elliott Erwitt, "New York City," 1958

Soon it will be the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Ancient people observed this day, watching the stars and the shortening days, patiently abiding and taking note until one day…it changed. They learned that the darkest day is followed by a little more light.

This year, we are experiencing darkness in an unprecedented way, witnessing widespread illness and death, experiencing separation from friends and loved ones, loneliness and loss. How can we just wait peacefully in the darkness.

“The true light never hides the darkness but is born out of the very center of it, transforming and redeeming,” writes Jungian author Helen M. Luke. “So to the darkness we must return, each of us individually accepting his ignorance and loneliness, his sin and weakness, and most difficult of all consenting to wait in the darkness and even to love the waiting.”

In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3200 B.C.E., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb perhaps, or a place of rituals. But this is what is extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice, on December 21, floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.

Today, there is a decades’ long waiting list to witness this marvel. But imagine the impact it must have had five thousand years ago. Imagine how dark it must have been. Imagine being gathered in the dark chamber with others…and then the light. Also imagine the effort and skill this project required, and register, again, that it was undertaken five thousand years ago, in what we call prehistoric times.

And here’s a new twist. In recent years, due to drought, new neolithic symbols have appeared around Newgrange, and new smaller but similar structures are being unearthed. Sometimes, no often, it’s the very hardest times that uncover new treasures.

A good definition of faith is the ability to keep the heart open in the darkness of the unknown. Notice that this subtle act of admitting the possibility that more may be revealed lets new life and light enter. It’s not a blaze, but more like relaxation, like  our eyes adjusting to darkness. We breathe easier, find our feet, and begin to see new things.

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