For many years I watched the dawn of the Winter Solstice over an 18th century cemetery that was on my way to work. No one else was around at that hour and I always felt a sense of awe seeing the mystery of the coming of the light over the granite reminders of death. It was as if the story of life’s regeneration was being played out in a most majestic way just for my benefit.
Of course, I am not the only person to see the rise of the Winter Solstice sun in a place of ancestral burial. For thousands of years, people have gathered at Newgrange, in Ireland, which is a monument and burial place with a passageway lit up every Winter Solstice by the rising sun.
This year, as the Winter Solstice creeps up on us (in the northern hemisphere, and the Summer Solstice sun in the southern hemisphere), I have been thinking about the people who built and came to Newgrange in ancient times, what their lives were like, and what they may have been thinking as they waited for the light to enter the passageway. What an amazing act of hope that was.
For those people, the Winter Solstice must have been a time of some fear, as the winter with its cold and looming famine took hold. The return of the sun was a matter of life and death to them. If the sun did not return and the crops failed, they would starve. They probably had enough food stored till late winter or early spring, but the time of hunger until the first foraging filled their larders was not far off. Their round homes with the central fire were snug and warm, but they were at risk of freezing to death if they ran out of fuel.
Yet, also, to them, the whole universe was alive. The sun, moon and stars were deities. The stones and rivers had souls. The ground below and the heavens above were filled with spirits, fairies, and goddesses and gods seen and unseen. At Newgrange, they were participating in a great cosmic turning for which they were contributing hope. They were offering to the dawn their faith that the forces of the cosmos would offer life for them for another year, guiding the sun’s rays down into the home of their ancestors and of themselves, bringing it to them and themselves to it. They had come to experience the love and protection of Divinity as the sun rose and they were not disappointed.
We now have the tools to overcome many of the things that were their worst fears. We are able to feed everyone on the planet if only our social and political systems would make sure all have what they need. We know how to make sure that our homes stay warm with renewable energy even in the bitterest cold, though so many among us are deprived of even the most basic shelter. Even many of the illnesses that cut short their lives are preventable or manageable now to those who can afford health care. Life on Earth could be a paradise if only we would use our will to make it so.
But yet, we are facing ecological and other catastrophes and the people on our planet face the same uncertainty as to whether we will have a future as those who gathered at Newgrange did, but for different reasons. We even have the physics to explain to us why the sun will always come back. What we can’t answer is what kind of Earth will it come back to?
People are still deeply moved by Newgrange, by that image of hope. Thousands apply to be one of the lucky few who are able to be present in the passageway when the Winter Solstice sun rises and thousands of others watch it livestreamed on the internet. How amazing that an experience that was only witnessed by a few hundred who lived close by in ancient times can now we shared by people all over the planet in real time!
Perhaps this Solstice we can remember what those people so long ago faced and how we, as a species, have developed the technology to solve what to them were life-threatening problems, but we have not created the spiritual maturity to make them work. This is the task we must take up when we rise from watching the Solstice.
Perhaps Newgrange itself can help inspire us to find the wisdom of that spiritual maturity. The earliest people of Newgrange, and many other cultures like them, seemed to value their place in the chain of generations and expressed this in ancestral burial monuments like Newgrange. As our part in this chain encompassing all humanity, we need to make sure the sun rises for all those who live now and all those who will come after us. If we determine to take this responsibility seriously, we can, metaphorically, be the ray of light that shines on the passageway between our generation and future generations.
As we each celebrate the Solstice in our way, we can be each other’s rays of light, each other’s love and protection coming down to illuminate the future we must all share. May we all shine like the sun.
Photo of Newgrange credit: Dentp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons