Pastoral Series

Prayer: Longest night

   Tomorrow marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Or the longest night. Many churches have “Longest Night” services during Advent, remembering those who grieve a loss during this season.

It’s not a coincidence that Christmas falls so close to this longest night. We have no idea on which day Jesus was born. In the fourth century, when the calendar of the Roman empire was being Christianized, they picked December 25, which for pagans was the feast of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun,” which began at this point to rise more forcefully day by day, not defeated by the darkness. Probably a bit of calendar confusion, as for them the 25th was that longest night. Christians linked this idea of ever-lengthening day to Christ.

So many Bible passages pick up on this imagery of light and dark. John depicts God being born as a child to the “light shining in the darkness” (John 1:5). “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). “Even the darkness is not dark to You; darkness is as light with You” (Psalm 139:12). In heaven, “night shall be no more; they need no lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5).

St. Francis’s daily prayer was “Enlighten the darkness of my heart.” We know darkness, despite our many electrical and battery powered lights. John Milton spoke of “darkness visible,” which we often call “depression.” There is something fitting in the notion that God came when it was the darkest. God’s love embraces and warms us. We love the carol, “In the bleak Midwinter.” That was when God made his humble home with us.

Of course, in another world, not so very far away, the longest night is the longest day! In Brazil and Kenya, where I’ve been in mission, it’s a bright long day just now. Fascinating: we live in a world, but God holds out for us the promise of another world. Fra Giovanni, the medieval poet, wrote, “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”

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