Tuesday, December 18, 2012
A Celebration of Sun Return
This post was first published in the Gallup Independent's "Spiritual Perspectives" column on 12/15/12 Reprinted by permission.
High on the orange and cream-colored Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon is a rock face with two spirals carved on it. In front of the spirals are three slabs of rock weighting two tons each. They have been placed so precisely that on summer and winter soltices, the sun shines between them, creating a dagger of light that pierces through the center of the large spiral. On autumn and spring equinoxes, sunlight bisects the smaller of the two spirals. This precise solar calendar tells us that the residents of Chaco were very sophisticated astronomers and mathematicians. They also had to be engineers in order to carve the slabs correctly and position them. In fact, there is a Navajo scholar who has written about the possibility that Chaco was not an ordinary pueblo, but a university.
I didn’t learn the word “solstice” in school. We talked about it as the first day of winter or the longest night and shortest day of the year. Because solstice comes during the time of short days and long nights, it is easy to think of winter solstice as the day that leads into darkness. Really, though, this day leads out of the dark time, back towards longer days. I think of winter solstice as a day at the center of a spiral; from there, we move outward, toward the sun. Summer solstice, the longest day, is at the outermost point of the spiral, to my way of thinking, and from there, we are moving inward, back toward darkness. It’s interesting to me that the Chaco scientists carved spirals to make their calendar.
The Jewish writer, Philip Roth tells the story of Ozzie, a boy whom the rabbi frequently punished for asking the “wrong” questions. One day Ozzie was talking to a friend about the story of creation. A paraphrase of what he said goes like this: “Imagine! A God who could make light! I mean, the plants and animals—that was something. But to make light!”
Ozzie seems to be expressing an awe that has been felt by Earth dwellers since ancient times, not only by those long-ago astronomers of Chaco Canyon. We frail beings need the light, not only to see our way, but our lives depend on it for food and warmth. It’s no surprise, then, that for millennia people have celebrated winter solstice or Sun Return, the light coming back to us at this darkest time of year. In the far north of Scandinavia, people hold the festival of Santa Lucia in which young girls dressed in white wear wreaths bearing lit candles upon their heads. Judah Maccabee marked Jewish freedom from the darkness of foreign rule and suppression of the Jewish faith with the lighting of oil. That light celebration has become the eight days of Hanukkah. Christian missionaries to northern Europe transformed the Celtic Yule tree into the Christ-mass tree, celebrating the Christ-Light. Georg Friedrich Handel’s oratorio The Messiah quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
At this time of year the light takes on a precious quality. By day it is bright white and clear. In the evening it plays over rock and hill and turns the mountains outside my window melon-red. I used to often drive past El Cabezon, called Tsé Naajiin in the Diné language. The head and shoulders of the giant that was slain by the Navajo Hero Twins showed huge and black against brilliant strips of orange and light blue. Above it, in darker blue hung the solitary Evening Star. Now, at dusk and into the night, houses display colored lights to remind us that it is Christmas and that the light will faithfully return to us. Farolitos, lit candles in brown paper bags, remind us that there is light in the darkness.
I once had a dream that I was driving along in the snow, and a brilliant silver light kept crossing in front of my line of vision. Finally, I saw where it was coming from—a group of people on a white hillside played catch with a ball of light. I pulled onto the shoulder, got out and joined them. We were joyful in our play, and there was a sense of cooperation and purpose, a feeling of community, of shared work and play.
It’s easy to see darkness around us, not just the darkness of winter, but the darkness of wars, hunger, poverty, violence, and homelessness. The celebration of Sun Return is a celebration of hope and faith that the light always returns. Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.” I think of this when I remember my dream, and I wish for us on Earth in the dark season, the dark times, that we will be that light, that we will play a lot of catch with each other—cooperating, having a common purpose to shed the light of love around us.