Ten more days until the solar cycle renews and the sun starts its return to the northern hemisphere; winter solstice is the darkest day for us up here north of the equator. We hardly think of it in today’s world of eternal electric light, but ancient people held this day in holy reverence. Monuments large and small abound around the globe where people without a written language, as we know it, marked the passage of days and the travels of the earth and sun.
From Stonehenge to Chaco Canyon we can imagine these astrologers waiting in the hours of pre-light for the sun to send its rays of light through a passage to a distant wall marked just for the occasion. The festivities that followed reminded the people that God had not abandoned them, light and warmth would soon return, followed by green buds, colorful flowers and hopefully abundant crops by the end of summer, so the parties were splendid.
For weeks leading up to the solstice, people prepared for the party; special clothes, foods, decorations, games, dances, festivities of all kinds were waiting for the ancient shaman to proclaim the day.
Knowing the day well ahead, the wise man wraps himself in the ceremonial blankets or robes and assembles his elders and messengers. Sunrise and the light dances down to the marker stabbing it like a saber. “Aha! Now! Let the celebration begin!”
We, of this enlightened age, might discount these pagan rites because they do not conform to our theology. Yet in those days, before Abraham and Sarah, before Moses and Miriam, before Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, before Buddha, before the Prophet Mohammed, before Copernicus, even the most ancient people had discerned that life on Earth is linked to the stars and that this life in the stars and on Earth was linked to the spirit. They understood that the things we consider important on a daily basis are nothing compared to the deeper truths of the cosmos and the spirit.
Go back and analyze the message of all the great mystics and religious leaders and it still boils down to this truth: God is present in life!
Further, they all teach that the greatest peril in life is to turn your back on this truth. Jesus says the only unforgiveable sin is a sin against the Spirit. To sin against the Spirit is to deny the Spirit access to your life. Jesus’ greatest indictments were reserved for the priests of the temple, because they made it harder for people to gain access to God. He called them “twice as fit for hell.” Jesus wasn’t anti-Jewish, he was anti-temple, because God was much bigger than a mere building or a country.
Whenever we choose to fight over our understanding of God, we invariably diminish our understanding of God. Why, you may ask? Because all faiths have this understanding of the nature of the divine as being the singular creator of all things, all beings, yet fighting over God says that we believe God is not their God, only our God. So God is no longer God of all, God is only God of half of us. God will only smile on us, not on all, so God got smaller somehow.
I know what I believe about God and Jesus Christ, I don’t have to have anyone else agree with me to validate my faith. In my theology, God loves us all, each and every one, saint and sinner, Christian and Jew, Moslem and Hindu, Buddhist and even Pagan. If our knowledge is incomplete, God does not love us less; I’m counting on that because I know my knowledge is incomplete. So, if someone believes differently than I do, I figure they are on their own search and their own path and they are free to believe what they will. God will not love them less. Nor can I do anything to make God love me more. I can do things which please God or displease God, but God’s love is not dependent on God’s pleasure.
So Christmas, which is only celebrated on Dec. 25 because the early Christians needed a holiday to compete with the Pagan festivals around the winter Solstice, is not diminished in its purpose even if we got Jesus’ birthday wrong. (No birth records exist, and the only evidence we have to time it is the shepherds were in the fields in lambing season — which would have been the spring; April or May.
The timing of Christmas at solstice is perfect because the message is the same: Emmanuel — God is with us.
The only question really is this: Are we with God?
So, wish a lot of people a Merry Christmas this year, because the meaning and truth of “Merry Christmas” is to bless the person you are greeting. You might also say, “Smile, God is with you!”
The Rev. Steve Petty is the pastor of First United Methodist Church. He welcomes your e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.