Winter solstice: let there be light 21/12/12

The winter solstice has arrived, the moment when the angle of the earth in relation to the sun means that in the northern hemisphere the days grow longer and the darkness begins to recede. We have just concluded our celebration of Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and we are surrounded by the lights that other cultures use to brighten these dark days.


Since human beings first learned to make their own light, they have used it to hold at bay the darkness of this season. Indeed before the relationship between the earth and the sun was properly understood, or humans recognised the cycles of nature, there was fear that the shortening of daylight as winter approached would continue, leaving the world bereft or light and warmth.


Our modern understanding of the earth’s orbit around the sun reassures us that the world will not end on December 21st, in this or any other year. After the winter solstice, the nights will grow shorter and the days will lengthen.


A glance around our world, however, is not so reassuring. There is much darkness that shrouds our planet, and little suggestion that the gradual increase in light will penetrate it with hope. We see vicious civil wars, numerous manifestations of nature’s cruelty, and just last week we watched in horror as twenty small children and several of their teachers were murdered in an elementary school in Connecticut.


When darkness such as this falls upon our earth and clouds our vision and our souls, we might do well to question whether we might ever find light again. The knowledge that human beings are capable of such callousness and brutality fills our world and our lives with darkness that, perhaps, no light can ever penetrate.


The words of a poem by American Jewish poet Robert Nathan, which are read every year on Yom Kippur in Liberal synagogues, come to mind.


God of pity and of love, return to this earth

Go not so far away, leaving us to evil.

Return O God, return. Come with the day

Come with the light, that we may see once more

Across this earth's uncomfortable floor

The kindly path. The old and loving way.

Let us not die of evil in the night.

Let there be God again. Let there be light.[1]


Very soon, as the days grow longer, nature will begin to provide us with more light.

It might seem that this light will not fall on places like Damascus, or Gaza, or S’derot or Newtown, Connecticut. In such places the darkness will remain in human hearts, no matter how much light may fall with the renewal of days.


Whether or not God will come with that light is a question that needs to be asked by any human being who cares for the future of the world and for the generations that will come after us.


God’s presence in the return of light to the earth was not doubted by the generations that came before us. In distant times, the ancients gathered around stone circles, and showed their gratitude in strange and long hidden ways. More recently, human beings have celebrated the return of light with words of prayer and thanksgiving.


How shall we acknowledge the turning back of the darkness from our chill and chilling world? Will we even notice? Are we blinded to nature’s miracles by our artificial lights?


We have forgotten how to acknowledge what is beautiful in our lives. We have lost sight of the miracles on which our lives are based. We have learned to live without recognising God.


And then, when tragedies occur, we ask where God is. We weep for the tragedy of lost innocence, recoil in horror at the evil that takes the lives of children in their schoolrooms and ask how God can allow such things to happen.


And if in our thoughts God were to speak to us, if in our prayers God were to come to us, if in our reaching out, God were able to respond to us, what might we hear? God would remind us, as God always has, that we can, we must do better than this. God’s instruction has not changed through the years, only our ability to see it.


May we learn to see more clearly in the returning light, may we find hope and comfort in it and may the darkness begin slowly to recede from our lives in the coming days.

[1] 'From Sonnet XIII by Robert Nathan, American Jewish poet and novelist (1894-1985) in 'Selected Poems', Knopf, NY, 1935; Appears in the Liberal Judaism High Holyday Prayerbook Machzor Ru'ach Chadashah, London 2003 p.225.