Sunday, December 20, 2020

Christmas and the Winter Solstice

I can’t remember how old I was when I learned that the birth of Christ did not occur in December but actually around the time of the Passover in the Spring; perhaps it was on my LDS mission, when I first started really studying the scriptures and the various available commentaries.  I have to admit that it slightly dampened my Christmas celebrations for a few years and heightened my love of the Easter season, especially when I discovered that many of the “Christmas” traditions and symbols I loved were actually pagan to begin with and were conveniently adopted by the church to more easily transition new converts into historic Christianity.  Some historians and other experts speculate that early Christianity chose to appropriate the Winter Solstice for its Christmas celebration, as the solstices and equinoxes were key parts of many pre-Christian religions. 

Despite all of this (and not to mention the commercialization of Christmas), to me the holiday has always been about the birth of the Christ child as much as it was about pine trees and holly, Santa Claus and gift giving, or feasting and caroling.  In my heart I thought, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”  Maybe ten years ago, a friend of mine gave a talk in church about the symbolism of Christmas.  It was a bit of a re-appropriation talk; I enjoyed it and it made me think about the chicken and egg of these symbols – who appropriated what, from whom, and when?  He talked about the symbolism of caroling pointing to the heavenly choirs singing hosanna to shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem, rather than the pagan wassailing to drive away evil spirits.  The evergreen tree as a tree of life adorned with “fruits” of light rather than the fertility decorations Romans used for Saturnalia.  And of course the greatest gift of all – the condescension and later sacrifice of a god, rather than the jolly Sinterklaas tradition or kindly gift giving Italian witches or Scandinavian tomtens or Saint Nicolases or even the Celtic Corn King who offered himself as a sacrifice so that his people could live.  I thought it was a pretty incredible talk for a sacrament meeting and felt good to have those symbols “back”, so to speak. 

Maybe a couple of years later I came across someone on the internet asking why the Lord picked the Autumn Equinox as the day that the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith four years in a row to prepare him to take the golden plates from the hillside in New York.  I didn’t have an answer but I thought it was a great question.  Why indeed did God utilize that day, above all others?  It did not seem like a coincidence.  I turned to the scriptures to find an answer and learned that the Lord uses the sun, moon and stars of the heavens, and the change of seasons, as signs in a more pointed way than I’d realized. 

With regards to the Equinoxes and Solstices, the movement of light and dark is a key theme.  The light of “day” is either growing or shrinking throughout the year – it is never static.  At the Equinoxes, the light of the day and the dark of the night are in perfect balance.  At the Solstices, the light and dark have their respective peaks.  The two breakthroughs for me came in studying the Jewish holy days in the Spring and Autumn (Passover and Yom Kippur, specifically) which gave me insight into the Equinoxes, and in a realization I had in 2016 about the Summer Solstice. 

I learned that the Equinoxes represent the atonement and resurrection of Christ.  In the Fall, as the light is in balance but is descending to its darkest day, the equinox is symbolic of how Christ descended below all things in the Garden of Gethsemane – even the red leaves falling to the ground bring to mind Christ’s bleeding from every pore.  There is a reason that the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) takes place in the fall near the Equinox.  In the Spring, again the daylight and night are in balance but the light is rising toward a perfect day, symbolizing Christ’s victory over darkness where He overturned an unjust death, having never sinned, and rose again to life as the Spring does from Winter’s dead and frozen grip.  Christ’s resurrection occurred right after the Passover had been celebrated, in the Spring of the year. 

Regarding the Solstices, I was first pondering over the symbolism of the Summer Solstice.  That day is all about light, as it contains the most minutes of daylight of any day during the course of the whole year.  At or around noon on that day, when the sun has risen to its zenith, it is a triumph of light – and if the Lord uses the seasons as signs, it represents His Coming in glory, majesty, and light for the world to see!  That insight was confirmed to me through the Spirit with power, and since then, I’ve taken the opportunity to worship the Lord in prayer during that moment of that day, and it has truly been a phenomenal experience. 

So, if the Equinoxes represent atonement and resurrection respectively, and the Summer Solstice symbolizes Christ’s Second Coming, then the Winter Solstice must represent His mortal birth.  How is this the case, though?  Since the apex of light on the Summer Solstice, each day for approximately the last 182 have seen fewer and fewer minutes of light.  Midwinter’s Eve becomes the longest or “darkest” night of the year, so far.  What if the night continued on its path, eating up the minutes of sunlight until none were left?  Sometimes, as I look around at the spiritual darkness in the world, it feels like that’s exactly what happened.  But to save this world from devolving into darkness, destruction and chaos, the Lord condescended to be born into mortality to work out an atonement and attain to the resurrection – to turn the tide of darkness and redeem us with His light and life.  As the sun rises on the morning of the Winter Solstice, the trend is reversed and the sun provides more seconds of light every day from that point forward until it reaches its climax the following June.  But on the day after the solstice, it’s not easy to tell that you had an extra moment of light.  In fact, the world around you will only grow colder for the next couple of months, at least – bitter cold, in some places.  Christ’s mortal birth was a subtle thing, not noticed by mankind generally.  His humble life was not what the Jews were expecting of their Messiah.  And His death on a Roman cross was ignominious – the death of a cursed man.  And yet, that birth and His mortal ministry changed everything. 

It is my hope, this Christmas and on the Winter Solstice tomorrow, that we each take the time to worship the Lord – to praise Him for His goodness and greatness, and to thank Him for His tender mercies and blessings of grace – for His condescension from His heavenly throne to be born a mortal baby in this dark world, for the purpose of bringing us each back into the light. 


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