Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Longest Night of the Year

Celebrating the Winter Solstice is part of an ancient tradition, a profound acknowledgement of nature's cycles and the importance of the return of the light.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to find an annual celebration at a local Universalist Unitarian church that is an evocative, spiritual, and symbolic gathering. Last year I went with my friend Jill, who was eight months pregnant. This year we went again, this time with her new daughter Aela.

The evening, as before, was filled with poetry, music and quiet drama. The darkened hallways were lined with LCD tea-light candles in paper bags punctured by delicate star formations, creating a quiet tone.

The night began with an hypnotic second century melody called "Hymn to the Sun," followed by "First Winter," a poem by Mark Evan Chimsky.

In the first section of the celebration, called "Knowing the Twilight," the song "Sure on This Shining Night" by Samuel Barber was followed by a hymn: "Dark of Winter" by Shelley Jackson Denman. Then a figure in a sparkling dark cloak, wearing a dark mask, entered and lit an enormous ice chalice in the center of the darkened room. The audience sat in concentric rows with four aisles. One by one, elaborately costumed and masked figures came from each direction, North, South, East and West, carrying candles which they set into the ice chalice. A musical meditation called "Orion" followed. The music was exquisite, featuring singers and live musicians playing piano, shuttle pipes, violins, a singing bowl, flute, and clarinet.

The next section, "Embracing the Dark" opened with a Rilke Poem, "On Darkness."

This translation by David Whyte is, I think, similar to what we heard:

"You darkness from which I come,

I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight —

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night."

A reading ("To Know the Dark" by Wendell Berry) was followed by "Epitaph," by Sarah Williams and Joseph Haydn, sung in voices. A silent meditation plumbed the depths of the communal reverie.

"The Light Returns" started with a reading of "The Spiral Dance" by Starhawk and a chant ("Goddess of Light") followed by "Why I Wake Early" by Mary Oliver:

"Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light –

good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness."

The most dramatic part of the program was when The Sun, dressed in glittering robes of orange and yellow, bearing a goblet glowing with a candle, and wearing a golden mask, entered and, as the lights came up, danced gracefully through the room before settling on a golden throne.

The final section, "Sharing the Light," contained more readings and the entrance of The Green Man, dressed in a green mask, his arms entwined with green vines.

The gathering sang the hymn "We Are One" and after parting words about the solstice, closed with "The Solstice Carol."

This divine celebration was, once again, a potent acknowledgement of the forces of darkness and light, a sharing of the gifts of spirit and life, a way to share reflections on the past while casting forth renewed energy and hope for the coming year.

To Know The Dark
by Wendell Berry

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

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