During the advent season it is traditional to light advent candles. One on the first week, two on the second, three on the third, four on the fourth, and on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day we light all five, culminating in the Christ Candle. Throughout these days of advent, the light has been growing in our sanctuaries.
But lights are not only dominant in our sanctuary. Throughout the entire Christianized world, lights are ablaze. Homes, stores and streets are all bright with lights. Trees and lawns are decorated with them. It is obvious that Christmas and lights go together. Have you every wondered why?
There is a second issue that puzzles some people at this time of the year. Why do we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December? There is serious reason to doubt that that is the actual birth date of Jesus. Of course the New Testament gives us no date. We do not know the day, month or year from reading the Biblical records. It is tradition that has fixed this date for the celebration. But why would the ancient church choose this day in preference to all others?
Perhaps the issue of Lights & the 25th of December go together. Let’s investigate!
In the Ancient Roman world, the 25th of December was a time for the celebration of the Saturnalia, a feast for the Roman god, Saturn. The festival began on December 19 and was extended for 7 days until December 25th. It was a high holiday for merrymaking, gift giving, and I am sorry to say, drunkenness and debauchery. It was a lot like Mardi Gras.
The church took advantage of these days of celebration, but had no desire to honor the pagan gods of Rome, and so they transposed these same days into the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ into our world. The reign of Saturn was associated with the coming of a “golden age”. The Church offered its alternative to that idea by making the birth of Jesus Christ the start of a New Age with new life for all humanity.
But there is a second reason for the presence of lights at Christmas. Within Judaism there was the celebration of the Feast of Hanukah, known as The Festival of Lights. In 167 B.C. the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the Greek Ruler of Syria. He sacrificed a pig in the temple, and erected a statue to Zeus. For three years the people of Judea led by the Maccabee brothers carried on guerilla warfare against the Greek soldiers, and to everyone’s surprise won the battles.
In December of 164 B.C. they regained the temple. Because it had been polluted, it had to be cleansed and consecrated. This was the beginning of the Festival of Lights. For 8 days candles were lit in the great Menorah in the temple. And since that day, in every Jewish community for the past 2100 years, candles have been lit over the eight-day festival to celebrate the deliverance from their enemies.
And once again, the church took advantage of the day and the season, but transposed it into a more important celebration. For it is Jesus Christ, not the Maccabee brothers, who is the ultimate deliverer, who brings light, not only to Israel, but also to the entire world.
The Winter Solstice
There is another reason, however, why lights and Christmas go together.
Because of the rotation of our tilted planet around the sun, on or about June 23rd the summer solstice takes place. The word “sol” is the word for sun. The word “sistis” means to stand. That is the day the sun seems to stand still. Its direct light has reached its most Northern point – the Tropic of Cancer. It is the official start of summer. This standing still of the sun also takes place about December 23rd each year. This is when the Sun’s direct rays hit the most southern point of our globe – the Tropic of Capricorn. It is the official start of our Winter.
But something else happens because of the winter solstice. December 23rd is the time when the night is the longest, and the 24th is the time when the day is the shortest that it will be all year. For the past months the night has been creeping up on the daylight. But on Christmas Eve a change is perceptibly happening. The sun no longer appears to stand still. The night has reached its maximum spread over our hemisphere, but now it begins to shrink and the light begins to increase. (Where Amy & I lived in the north, that meant in Winter we had 8 hours of light and 16 hours of darkness, but thank goodness, in the Summer that was entirely reversed.)
And the ancient church saw this to be a fitting symbol of what Christ had come to do. For December 25 not only signified that the darkness was beginning to turn to dawning, but it also told us that winter was beginning to change to Spring. Oh yes, the cold is still here. The darkness is still intense. But the back of winter has been broken, in fact, if not in feeling. The cold and the darkness still prevail, but when the sun begins its journey towards the north again, we know that the arrival of spring is inevitable.
It is true that Easter time is a more natural place for celebrating the arrival of Spring, but the process that led to the full-blown spring actually began in the middle of our darkest night.
The coming of Christ
Our world was a cruel and cold place before He came. Might was right. Fear stalked the earth in the face of an unfettered paganism. Religion was filled with the language of hunger, but not of fulfillment. It was a world of much searching, but little finding. It was winter in the world.
If you have read C.S. Lewis’s book or seen the movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you might remember that it describes the land of Narnia. It was a world of unending winter. Lucy is heard to say, “It was always winter, but never got to Christmas.” But there comes a day when Aslan the Lion enters that world. And evil is arrested in its course. The air begins to grow warmer, the sound of running water is heard in that frozen land, and snow begins to slide off the pine branches, revealing the green beneath the whitened world.
God was not content that we live in a world of winter that never got to Christmas. So in the middle of the world’s winter he sent his son. He sent him as a light into our darkness. That is why the early writers of the Gospels cannot leave the theme of light alone.
In Luke’s Gospel angels appear in brilliant light and glory shone on shepherds. The elderly priest Zechariah sings “The morning star has visited us from on high.” and later adds, “He is a light to those that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!” And Simeon the old saint takes the young child in his arms and calls him “A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, a star of light leads the wise men and later tells us that when Jesus came into Galilee, “Those that sat in darkness have seen a great light.’
And John’s Gospel floods with references to Jesus the light of the world.
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shone in the darkness.”
“He is the true light that lights every one that comes into the world.”
“We beheld His glory…”
“I am the light of the world, he that walks with me shall not walk in darkness.”
The current aphorism reads, “it is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness”, so God lit a candle, and He flooded the earth with light.
But all of us are aware that there is a deep darkness in much of the world. The year past has been filled with horrid tragedies. There is war in too many places, with too high a price paid for such few gains. People still live in the aftermath of hurricanes and famines and medical epidemics. Terrorism, racism, and poverty still cripples the lives and hopes of far too many in our nation and around the world. Sometimes we feel like cursing the darkness. Sometimes all we think we can do is slump into despair or raise our fists in anger and protest that it is unfair.
But these responses bring no solution. If the darkness is going to be pushed back, it will be because as Jesus was the light of the world, we too become lights set on a hill and join our Lord as the light and lights of life.
All of this has a very personal message for each of us.
Some of us may come to this season with darkened hearts. We have succumbed to discouragement and despondency. We may feel keenly the loneliness of life, which only becomes more intense at this so-called family time of year.
Others of us may come from darkened pasts. Things have been done against us that should not have been done. We have done things we should not have done. Guilt rules and remorse plagues us. The folly of our past lives and present moods cast shadows over our lives.
Some of us may face dark futures. There are those who dread what tomorrow might bring, fearing that the future will not be as good as the past as health declines, or with loss of loved ones.
King George VI of England faced such a time. Hitler’s armies marched with impunity across the darkening face of Europe. The King was called upon to give his annual message to the commonwealth. He chose to read the poem of Louise Askins:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness,
And put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be better to you than light
And safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and, finding the hand of God
Trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of the day in the lone east.”
I am so glad that we have a December Christ. Not a Christ for fair days only. But a Christ for dark days, for days clouded with disappointment and loss. We have a Christ for the icy blast and the winter storms. We have a Christ for people with blighted hopes. We have a Christ who is the light for any darkness. And that is the cause of our joy in the midst of the world’s sadness. We will not face our world in sadness. We will not be pessimists. We will sing a song of Joy.