Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Shortest Day of the Year

The sun went down a little while ago here in Atlanta. It's completely dark outside, and it happened earlier today than any other day this year. It's the Winter Solstice -- the day with the least amount of sunlight. Every day for the next six months will gradually grow longer and longer.

The early church faced some big decisions with what to do about certain pagan holidays. These holidays were so deeply embedded in their culture that people who had left behind their pagan ways and converted to Christianity would often revert to pagan revelry on these special days. Church leaders thought that if they could establish new holidays to paste over the old ones, maybe that might help.

And so the idea of celebrating the birth of great people in the Bible came about. But where on the calendar should they put something as significant as the birth of Jesus?

They actually decided on it a little backwards. First, they decided to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on the Summer Solstice. It's the longest day of the year. Every day after that has gradually fewer and fewer hours of sunlight. This reminded them of John's statement that "I must decrease so that Jesus can increase" (John 3:30).

If Jesus is the light of the world, it makes sense to celebrate his entrance into this world on the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice fell on December 25 in the Julian Calendar. Christmas -- the celebration of the birth of Jesus -- was placed on that date.

I know all about the Feast of Saturnalia, and I've heard all the theories about early Christians just wanting to Christianize the population. But after this week, there will be gradually more and more light in our world. At least there's supposed to be. Today has been the shortest day of our year. I am looking forward to more sunlight tomorrow and more the day after that.

I am looking forward to seeing how this Christ-child born in such a lowly estate is going to continue to increase in my own life and eventually light up the sky of this darkened world.

So, in one sense, today has been dark. Dean still isn't showing any signs of improvement or receptivity that I know of. Children are going to bed tonight hungry and cold. Disease is tearing apart an entire continent. People are lonely and afraid and bound by rigid legalism that robs them of their joy.

But in another sense, we could say that we have made it through the darkest part. The light has broken through and may only exist in small pockets here and there -- slivers of light shining through the cracks of the walls. But broken through it has. And tomorrow will have more light than today.