The Mystery of Advent: Longest Night

Reflections from Dr. Howell

The Winter Solstice. The longest night. In school, we learned about the tilt of the earth, the angle of the sun’s light, how the days grow shorter and the nights longer. That’s science. What we know down in the marrow of our being is the feel of the long night, tossing in the bed, wondering if light will ever dawn. Churches have picked up on this, having “Blue Christmas” services to mark the inevitable grief we experience so painfully at the holiday. The one who made Christmas Christmas is gone. Or I am alone, which I sure didn’t imagine I’d ever be at Christmas. The long night.

This Winter Solstice, marked by ancient folks in that cluster of massive rocks at Stonehenge (which is livestreamed!), has often been dubbed “Midwinter.” We have a carol: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow… long ago.” Sounds dreary, and our cold world and often cold hearts do get hard, don’t they? During such dark, chilled days, where is our hope?

The carol continues: “Our God, heaven cannot hold him… In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed, the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. Angels and archangels may have gathered there… but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.”

Our Church, instead of a “longest night” service on the 21st, offers our “Hope and Consolation” service earlier in the month. You can watch it… Finding hope, in the dark. In my homily I reminded us of the way our sighs of despair are, miraculously and mercifully, the Holy Spirit praying in us (Romans 8:26), and how God counts our tossings in bed during sleepless nights (Psalm 56:8). And how “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:4) – echoed by the medieval poet Fra Giovanni: “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.”

Friends, look for the light. And offer your self to God – as we sing in that carol’s lovely last stanza: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can, I give him: give my heart.”