It isn’t unusual for sacred architecture and astronomy to meet like this: the great example is Stonehenge. The orientation of our churches eastward links astronomy to faith just as the date of Easter does. At Vézelay, the great Romanesque basilica built at the same time as Durham is constructed in such a way that at the summer solstice, the sun’s rays fall directly on to the centre aisle and create an avenue of light up the church; and today, if the sun is shining, they will illuminate the tops of each of the famous carved capitals on the north arcade as if by spotlights.
John Donne called the winter solstice ‘the year’s ’ in his ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’. He wrote in the era of the Julian calendar, so the solstice fell near 13th December, her feast day. When the calendar was reformed, the solstice shifted to the 21st or near it. This was St Thomas’s Day which also carried overtones of darkness, doubt and unknowing. Today’s weather has echoed its sombre theme: the rains and the lowering skies, the lifeless greyscale landscape, the sun obscured for the 4th day running. No wonder that in northern Europe our forebears developed midwinter rituals for cradling the fragile light against the ancient threats of darkness, chaos and death.
Donne’s poem imagines the solstice as a mirror of his human state: the wintry sense that he is not even half-alive. ‘I am every dead thing’ he says: ‘lean emptiness… re-begot of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’. Why does he feel so cruelly used? The answer is, because of the death of a woman friend – or maybe because of the death of the friendship. Her name was Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Whatever the reason, he feels abandoned, forlorn, alone. His sun can never renew itself, climb back up towards its zenith and the summer that lovers love. For him it is winter: life without love is nothing. Death cannot be far away. ‘Since she enjoys her long night’s festival, let me prepare towards her’ he writes bitterly,
And let me callThis hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep is.
Loss and the memory of it are powerful and poignant at this time of year. But you don’t have to be bereaved to feel the dark creeping over your soul. Seasonal affective disorder is a real condition, and real too is its spiritual equivalent: that depressive loss of direction, energy, inward vitality that our medieval forebears called accidie, listlessness. And in that state, we easily fall prey to displacement activity – and this is the real peril of Christmas - anything to mask the emptiness in our hearts, the shadows that hang over our spirits, the undertow of hopeless longings and unfulfilled dreams that haunt us and make us wonder whether we can ever be truly alive again.
Advent summons us to stop and reflect on who and what we are, and who and what our destiny, now in the time of this mortal life, while we have the opportunity to consider what death, judgment, hell and heaven mean for us. On midwinter’s day we are almost out of time: it is almost too late to prepare. Yet it is not too late, never too late to give voice to the universal human longing:
O come O come, thou Dayspring bright,
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
It is the cry of all people who are without light, who are crushed or hurt or abandoned: the cry for deliverance, help and salvation. We have heard it with terrible force among the bereaved families of Newtown and the refugee children of Syria. It is the cry of the lost part of our own selves. It is answered by the promise of a Child who will bring light and life, the Word who in the depths of night leaps down from heaven (as Hippolytus puts it) to illuminate our world’s darkness.
It is the year’s midnight, and the sun is at its lowest. But tomorrow the days begin to grow longer. The light will strengthen once more, imperceptibly at first: for a few weeks it will be an act of faith to believe that one day it could be summer again. Yet the lengthening light is an image of faith and hope. And when things are dark and we are tempted to despair, when the poor are with us always and violence is abroad, when terror stalks the lives of many and more still are helpless or in pain, it is precisely then, at this nadir of solstice that we need to recover our hope. John Donne is right: life without love is empty, without purpose. But life can begin again because God is with us in the coming of Jesus our Sun of Righteousness.
So we can trust God’s meridian line to lead us out of the shadows. At midwinter we can lift up our hearts, for on this day of solstice, the axis of the world is turning back towards the light.