21 December 2011 a post by Ian Adams

The Winter Solstice: into the unknown land, unknowing

It is as if the sun is reborn. The Winter Solstice, also know as Yule, marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year - a kind of rebirth of the sun - giving life and light to the world and to its creatures.

winter field

Usually arriving on 21 December, this year the actual Solstice moment apparently arrives a few minutes into 22 December. Wherever we are, and whenever we choose to mark it, this turning-point in the year is a gift that deserves our care and attention.

One of the interesting things about the Winter Solstice is the subtlety of the change it marks. In fact there is no immediate change. In the northern hemisphere it remains dark and cold. Only the most keenly aware will sense the first lengthenings of daylight. Only the most fortunate or the most hopeful will sense an upward movement in temperature. And often the weather patterns of winter become more demanding in the weeks following the Solstice. So we can find ourselves asking if anything has really changed?

winter sun

This may be why there are various hopeful practices associated with the Solstice and the Druids, like the careful cutting of mistletoe from sacred oaks to share as means of protection and blessing through the rest of the winter. We need signs to remind us of the change that is happening unseen, unperceived and unknown.

If we are allowed favourite saints and mystics one of mine is St John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish friar and founder of the Carmelite Order. I love the beginning of his mystic poem ‘After an Ecstasy’:

‘I went into an unknown land, unknowing…’

St John is trusting that the change he seeks - and all the various rebirths of goodness, life and light he longs for - are happening, even when he can see little or no evidence for them.

In the thinking that has emerged more recently out of the same Jesus tradition in which John of the Cross was steeped, this is sometimes referred to as ‘the now and not yet’. In the care of a God who is always mysterious but also always truly good, deep change for the better is underway, even though that change appears no nearer than when we first dared to hope. It’s both here and not here. The Christ child whose birth is celebrated a few days after the Winter Solstice may be just one more baby, but the tradition senses that something vital has shifted. Nothing will be the same again.

This is life in winter. This is ‘the unknown land’, into which we must go ‘unknowing’. And it is here that we may discover that the changes that we hope for are already happening…


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