Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston



Tuesday, December 22, 2009


TODAY’S DARKNESS is tomorrow’s light. Contemplations of the winter solstice once opened into religion, which is why the cultic festivals of light define the secular space this week. “Here comes the sun,’’ as the Beatles told us, and they could have been singing of Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god whose celebration was preempted by Christmas, songs of a different Son. Sure enough, the days will get longer now. Does it matter that the sun, actually, is not “coming,’’ but that the earth, in its elliptical revolution, only adjusts the tilt in its rotation? Contemplations of the solstice opened equally into what we call science.


In the beginning, though, the winter cults by which the gods were worshipped were part of a generalized marking of the calendar that served the immediate purpose of survival. When humans had replaced opportunistic scavenging (“hunters and gatherers’’) with agriculture (planting and herding), close attention to the sun and other heavenly bodies became a necessity, since livestock take mating cues from the quality of light, and cycles of the harvest equally depend on celestial predictability. Knowing how the moon wanes and waxes, and where the sun is in relation to the horizon had become ways to fend off starvation. The creatures who honored the gods with light in winter were honoring their own ability to think.

Art, engineering, astronomy, physical exertion, social organization, and mysticism - such categories are rigidly distinct in our time, each a separate university “discipline,’’ different buildings, if not quads. Yet imagine how those skills came together, say, in the construction of New Grange, the man-made hill in Ireland that was assembled out of huge stones some 5,000 years ago. Defining a mound that probably served as a tomb, the small inner chamber has a narrow opening to the sky that was calibrated so precisely as to admit a needle of sunlight only at dawn on the winter solstice. The light, lasting minutes, illuminates delicately carved triple spirals that would, over millennia, be seen as triune symbols of male, female, child; birth, love, death; eventually of the Trinity, foreshadowing the Irish shamrock.


But the festivals this week, sparked by this morning’s dawn, call to mind the age-old spaciousness of informed imagination. Happily, it remains so. Knowledge is holy. Season’s greetings.

James Carroll is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, article on Constantine the Great:
"Besides, the Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios in a mausoleum (c. 250) discovered beneath St. Peter's in the Vatican."
Indeed "...from the beginning of the 3rd century "Sun of Justice" appears as a title of Christ"[40]. Some consider this to be in opposition to Sol Invictus[citation needed]. Some see an allusion to Malachi 4:2.
The date for Christmas may also bear a relation to the sun worship. According to the scholiast on the Syriac bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, writing in the twelfth century:
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." [41] However, this statement directly conflicts with what we know of the early Christians, namely, that they were ridiculed, tortured, and cast apart from operative society precisely because they would not participate in the pagan feasts and celebrations. The early Christians set themselves directly in opposition to the paganism which ruled the day. "Since Christians worshipped an invisible God, pagans often declared them to be atheists."

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