Oh, my friends, these have been dark days. On Friday, the full moon, the moon the Native American people accurately call the “Cold Moon,” rose on the day of the winter solstice. Our daylight here in Seattle was precisely 8 hours and 25 minutes long, and the night seemed endless. Yet these days seem darker yet. The lights are going out in our government’s offices, and mighty efforts are being made to quench a torch held by a lady named “Liberty” that once lit the way to what the poet Emma Lazarus called “the golden door” for the “tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of teeming shores, homeless, tempest tossed.” And howsoever reluctantly, our church is facing the dark sins of its ministers and leaders. There is a lot of darkness out there, and in here.
The ancients knew a lot more than we usually give them credit for. Our Roman ancestors celebrated the birthday of the Invincible Sun on December 25, after a weeklong celebration of the Saturnalia. The celebrations were filled with candlelight, winter carnivals, role reversals, gift giving, and great big parties. For a day or two, masters served slaves, children commanded parents, gifts of little value but some utility were given across the classes, and, yes, a lot of wine was drunk. A lot of wine. The neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry tried to rationalize this saying that the freedom that characterized those days was a symbol of the “freeing of souls for immortality.” Other more practical folks suggested substituting the word “Immorality” for “immortality.” Probably both were right.
Somewhere around 340 AD, the bishop of Rome, the first Julius, declared that the now legal Church would celebrate the feast of the birth of the Invincible Son of Justice in place of the sun that slowly began to increase in the dark days of late December. In effect, Julius I baptized the feast, and transformed its dedication to Jesus, son of God and son of Mary. And many of the features of the ancient celebrations perdured. In the Middle Ages, a “Lord of Misrule” was elected as master of Christmas revels, and choirboys became bishop for the day. We still gather in candlelight at feasts with family and friends, howsoever awkward that may sometimes be. We still give gifts. We still gather here around this table, asking to share the gift of trust in Christ’s ever-promised presence. All this to push back against the darkness, to affirm the light, to affirm our hope.
We aren’t naïve. We acknowledge that these are dark days, and that there is much work to be done. Mary, pregnant with the promise and facing shame, acknowledged that too, when she rushed to the side of her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth who was unexpectedly, impossibly with child. She did not sit in the dark and brood. She went to accompany Elizabeth, to help her with her love and support. Elizabeth felt her unborn child leap for joy at the presence of his Lord and his mother.
These may not be days for leaping for joy, but nevertheless they are days full of promise. God continues to be good, even if we aren’t. God continues to be true to his promises, even if we aren’t. God continues to be merciful and forgiving, even if we aren’t. God continues to invite us to respond to those promises, even if we are reluctant, weary, or frightened.
Today, even through the rain and fog, there will be 5 seconds more daylight than on the day of the Solstice last Friday. On Christmas Day, the feast of birth of the Invincible Sun who is the Son of Mary, the day will be 18 seconds longer. On New Year’s Eve, the seventh day of the octave of Christmas, the light will be 50 seconds longer.
The question is what we can do, what we will do with that extra light. We can ignore it and be about our business, clean up after the holidays and gradually forget that they ever happened. We can continue to live in the fog. Or we can open our eyes and our hearts to what we celebrate in this season, which is nothing other than the name of this very Church where we gather: Christ Our Hope. If we live in hope, trusting in the promise, our darkness and sin can be transformed into light and further promise. We can be lights that shine in the darkness no less that Mary’s son: lights from light. And we can get to work, as Mary got to work, bringing the promise to flesh in our dark but brightening world.
Fr. Tom Lucas, S.J.