a little r & r

Have you noticed how early sunsets are these days?  Though the Winter Solstice will not occur until December 21, the earliest sunset in 2020 will occur much earlier.  The earliest sunset will arrive at 4:56 p.m. each late afternoon from December 1 through December 12 or between nine and twenty days before the Solstice on the 21st

On the opposite side of the coin, the latest sunrise this winter of 2020-2021 will not occur on December 21st but from January 2 through January 6 at 7:38 a.m.  January 6 also happens to be the Day of Epiphany, the day for celebrating the Visit of the Magi at Bethlehem, and the day the Eastern Orthodox churches and Christians exchange gifts.

Now, I am no astronomer, but there is a beautiful symmetry to the relationship between the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise in the solar calendar.  Without unnecessarily complicating this, December 6th and January 4th are the midway points for the earliest sunset and latest sunrise for this winter.   But what makes these dates so intriguing is that they fall precisely 15 days before and 15 days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year for 2020.  There is a kind of mathematical beauty to this astronomical phenomenon we might otherwise miss.

Here is something else to ponder:  We naturally associate the Solstices with the earth’s relationship to the sun (thus “Sol”).  We know that the sun shines longest in the northern hemisphere during the summer—hence the longest day, meaning sunlight or daylight, falling almost exactly 6 months before and after the Winter Solstice on the Summer Solstice or June 21.  And, as we have noted, the Winter Solstice is the shortest day.   We also know the sun is higher on the horizon in the summer than in the winter when the sun is lower on the horizon, at least in the northern hemisphere.

But what do we make of the sun’s partner, the moon, in winter?  One astronomer replies,

The full Moon is on the opposite side of the sky than the Sun.  So in winter, when the Sun during the day is low, the full Moon is around the place on the sky where the Sun is in summer (plus minus up to 5°). And vice versa — when the Sun is high in the sky in summer, the full Moon roams around the position of the Sun in winter, low above the horizon.”  This explains why the moon is at its highest point in the winter night sky while the sun is very low on the horizon and vice-versa.

So what, if anything does this all mean?

If we believe God can be found in nature, as we all do, we can begin to understand a sense of divine equity in the way in which nature operates through astronomical evidence.  Just when nights are longest and the sun is scarcest, God in God’s divine wisdom brings the moon into play to compensate partially for the decrease in sunlight, again in the northern hemisphere.  The way God does this is by placing the moon higher in the northern winter sky!  Is this just an astronomical coincidence or accident?  Perhaps, but I like to think God’s actions can be found in ordinary occurrences many highly committed humanists are apt to interpret solely as mere chance—and God knows there appears to be a lot of “chance” built into creation, because of the freedom God gave all creation. 

On the opposite other side of the planet, in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is occurring.  The sun is higher during our northern winters, so days are longer in Australia, where the moon is lower and nights are shorter this time of year.

Another less noticeable factor, beside the high arc of the moon in northern winters, is snow.  Why is snow a factor?  It is because snow reflects light, especially in the darkness and during a full winter moon.   It is an amazing sight to see.  Besides, the worldwide decline of snowfall and the loss of the northern polar icepack and in Antarctica is becoming of great concern regarding global warming and the potential for increasing rising seas.

There is no doubt we live in dark times, exacerbated by the brevity of sunlight with the coming of winter.  But the scriptures seem to be on to this!  Remember, the Jewish calendar is a Lunar Calendar, not a Solar Calendar; Passover likely may have occurred during a full moon. 

And so, we hear texts like Isaiah 60, written upon the return of Israel from Babylonian exile:   “Arise, shine, your light has come!”  The exile, which lasted 50 to 60 years, was one of the nation’s darkest historical moments, though its faith grew at that time.

Or, from Psalm 139, If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  Again, this may be a post-exilic passage.

Finally, from John 1, considered to be a parallel text to Genesis 1 and the creation of light:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  God, in God’s infinite wisdom created the sun and the moon to fulfill divine purposes, but never to make us struggle with complete darkness, however difficult our lives may be. 

But one more passage summarizes it best; also from Isaiah 60:  “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”

However hopeless at times our lives and our world may appear, the light of God’s glory, peace, joy and love will shine through whatever darkness we may personally and collectively endure.  Our task as Christians, in touch with God’s equity in nature, is to believe in the Unconquerable Sun and Moon and Son of Righteousness, we recognize as the Light of the World in Jesus of Nazareth and to pass this good news on!  So, keep looking up!


Smile!  Shine!  Our light is coming!