Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. It’s the Winter Solstice, which, according to Jamie Carter at Live Science, will occur at 10:28 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 21. Carter explains that, “Earth orbits the sun every 365 days while spinning on an axis tilted by 23.5 degrees. Its northern axis is tipped away from the sun on the winter solstice, resulting in the day with the fewest hours of daylight, and thus the longest night, all year in the Northern Hemisphere.”
That’s the science of the Winter Solstice, but there is also a cultural aspect. I’ve written before about Yule, “The pre-Christian festival, the Feast of Juul, that was observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires would be lit to symbolize the heat and light of the returning Sun and a Yule log was gathered and burnt in the hearth as a tribute to the Norse god Thor.” Modern Western Christians, too, have marked the longest night with “Blue Christmas” worship services for those who find that they are struggling during the holiday season due to a loss, illness, or other difficult life circumstances.
Beyond celebrations and daylight hours, however, there is another–perhaps even more important–aspect of the longest night: Spiritual. We often miss how the longest night, and the shortest day, can speak to us on a spiritual level, but be assured, it does. So often this time of year, many of us have moments of anxiety, or fatigue, or even dread. We may be grieving the loss of someone we love who has died in the past year or in years gone by, but we might also just be a little sad for no apparent reason.
On the longest night, it almost feels like the universe is giving nod to our weary spirits and our broken hearts. It almost feels like all of creation is a little colder, a little darker, a little more lonely in some way. It almost feels like the heavens and the earth are right there with us–a little sad for no apparent reason.
But the Winter Solstice is far more than some universal, cosmic depression. It is the moment when transformation begins. From the exact moment that the solstice occurs–10:28 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 21st–everything begins to change. No longer is the Northern Hemisphere tilting away from the sun–away from the light–it is now tilting toward it. With nights that grow increasingly shorter, and days increasingly longer–and all of the transformation in the natural world that comes with it. From the depths of darkness, something new begins to be born.
As Christians, we see this message of transformational darkness happening in the stories of our faith. The darkness of the womb is the place where transformation begins for a world in desperate need of the One who would show us the Way. At Easter, too, we see yet another transformational moment beginning in the dark–new life springing from the darkness of the tomb.
So, if you’re grieving this time of year. Or if you are anxious, weary, fearful, fatigued, or just generally sad, please hold onto the deep truth the Winter Solstice speaks to us: The darkness is not a destination, but the birthplace of transformation. It is the start of something, not the end. Light and warmth are being born from this cold, dark, long, and lonely night.
So as we head into the Longest Night tomorrow night, I implore you, don’t ignore your darkness, and don’t try to pretend that it’s not there. Embrace it. Pay attention to it. Sit in it knowing that this is the place God chooses to enter into our human reality. God is here, and you are not alone.
Sitting in the dark with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.