In the lead-up to the winter solstice earlier this week, I saw social media chatter claiming it would be the darkest night in 500 years. This phenomenon would apparently be the result of a lunar eclipse occurring on the same night as the solstice, the longest night of each year. Great, I thought along with most of the posts I observed. Just like 2016 to leave us with the literal darkest night in a half a millennium.
That, however, isn’t the whole story. There wasn’t a lunar eclipse. The root of this rumor was found to be a story about the 2010 solstice. Furthermore, new moons are significantly darker than lunar eclipses. And even if it had been the darkest night in five centuries astronomically speaking, most of us wouldn’t experience it thanks to the developed world’s stifling light pollution. It was dark, sure. The solstice marked the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere as it does every year. But it did not remain so. The sun came up the next morning, and our little lights of tungsten and gas along with a slender crescent moon held back total darkness until the sun returned.
I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Advent and Christmas, both in their original iteration so many years ago and in our 2016 commemorations. In a lowly backwater under the permanent threat of brutal crimes against humanity, the light pollution-free night sky above a field of shepherds burst forth with light and hope. The scene makes no sense then just as now, but I believe the message itself made less sense than the supernatural messenger. These were men who lived a life of isolation and contempt, useful but utterly undesirable to polite society. They, along with everyone they’d ever known, were surrounded on all sides by poverty, corruption, oppression, and violence in ways most of my readers can only imagine. And yet the light shone anyway.
What I find fascinating is that the proclamation to the shepherds implicitly agreed that darkness was present and real; if it wasn’t, why would one need to announce the arrival of light and hope? Darkness surrounded the shepherds, but it wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t left to those in darkness to find the light on their own, for the Light of the World came to them.
The darkness around us, too, is real. The president-elect is making casual comments about a nuclear arms race. An estimated 5,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year alone, fleeing body counts we may never fully know. Many of us are facing the kind of personal pain that defies words. The darkness around us is real; I can’t possibly say otherwise. But it isn’t the whole story. Even now, there are little spots, sparks, and reflections of something we can’t fully comprehend. When we are too far down to reflect light ourselves, others reflect that which holds back total darkness. We don’t have to grope for the light in our own pain, for the Light of the World has come to us.