The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year. Dark when we get up in the morning: dark in the early evening before getting home from work.
21st December is the shortest day and longest night. Nature seems to have gone to sleep. The leaves have fallen and the gardens seem dead.
Even at this darkest time of the year, the pagan god ‘Sol Invictus’ was prayed to by our forefathers. As early as the 2nd century, the Romans believed that the ‘Unconquered Sun’ would rise again and warm the earth and bring things back to life. Darkness and Light. Death and New Life. These are not just metaphors but touch the very deepest hopes and fears “…of all the years” the hopes and fears of every generation and every person’s life “…are met in thee tonight”.
It is no accident that the Christian Church celebrates the birth of the true light at the darkest time of the year. He is the light that darkness could not overcome. He is not the ‘Sun’ but the ‘Son’. As Isaiah prophesied:
“The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness- On them a light has shone”
There will always be a struggle between darkness and light. We know that on a personal level and in the public world as well. Nowhere is that more graphically seen than in the destruction and war being waged in the Middle East. Bombs and bullets, terror and violence seem to be the only language being used in these lands of the Bible.
And the innocents suffer. Who could fail but be shocked by the sheer terror on the faces of children and families as homes and schools, hospitals and clinics are destroyed in calculated ways to instil fear into the greatest number of innocents whether in Aleppo or Mosul and many other places unknown to us watching on our TV screens or reading about it in newspapers?
The story of the birth of Jesus resonates with the story of humanity at it’s darkest hour. Matthew Guite’s poem ‘Refugee’ puts it well:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
I am so pleased that members of the Archdiocese of Cardiff are working with the U.K Government to provide housing for at least one Syrian refugee family. Not just housing, but a whole support structure which will enable them to put their lives back together again in a place of dignity and safety. Volunteers will offer food and friendship, language classes and emotional support as well as the skills which will be needed to navigate a different culture and climate. Donations are given at the crib in every church during the Christmas season. What better use can be made of these offerings than to care for children and their families whose lives have been broken by suffering almost impossible to describe? These efforts will bring to life the prayers we say regularly at Mass:
“For those who suffer from the effects of war: for the homeless, the migrant and the refugee that we may be instruments of healing and of peace. Lord in your mercy…Hear our prayer”.
Whether we are believers or not, we proclaim the universal message of the need for peace on earth. Peace is not just the absence of conflict and war. Each of us has some responsibility to create at least some of that peace in our own lives and neighbourhood, not least in our work for a more just society and world. These are the ‘hopes and fears’ we focus on at Christmas.
Archbishop of Cardiff
20 December 2016