The Winter Solstice: from Darkness to Light, Grief to Hope
The Winter Solstice passes through the Great Lakes Basin and the northern Hemisphere today, marking the sun's turning towards longer days and shorter nights. The Solstice reminds us each year that new life will eventually make its return, even if that spring lives far in the distance.
The last rays of sunlight over Lake Michigan (photo by Dan Robinson)
The Winter Solstice marks a transition between growing darkness and lengthening light. In religious and spiritual circles, that moment of transition between what was and what will come is sometimes called a Liminal Space (from the Latin word, “limen,” which means “threshold”). For thousands of years, people have recognized the Solstice with ritual, knowing that their future depended on the return of the sun’s longer days.
Spirituality and religion have a special role to play in marking those moments of transition and helping us navigate them. The Winter Solstice, the marriage of two people, the death of a loved one, all these moments in the cycle of life have historically been ritualized in order to help us move from a former existence to a new reality, whether it’s celebrating the next stage of life or grieving the loss of the old life we knew.
I believe spirituality has a particularly important role to play in that movement from grieving to hoping in new life. This movement from grief to hope forms the core of my own tradition of Christianity, illustrated in the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But that same movement of grief to hope can be found in many religious traditions, especially those that are focused on the seasonal cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Moving from Grief to Hope
The movement from one place to another, however, requires us to recognize where we are in the first place, so moving from grief to hope means understanding and acknowledging that we’re in a moment of grief. We can’t skip that part. We can’t get to true hope if we don’t see the moment of grief we’re in. Otherwise, our hope is shallow, based on a lack of seeing the truth.
That seems to be the challenge of our times, acknowledging larger truths like the pandemic, systemic racism, and climate change, and learning to grieve the loss of life and livelihood that each entails.
But we also can’t get stuck in that grief. We have to be able to acknowledge it, feel the pain from it, but then move on to the new life that is possible. This is where spirituality and religion come in, by giving us tools that help us make that transition from darkness to light, grief to hope.
Ritual Helps Us Move
When my father died many years ago, family and friends of mine came together and celebrated his life with the planting of a tree marked by a ceramic piece of art created in his memory. The ritual and art shared in that liminal moment created another step in my movement from grief to hope.
We already ritualize moments of hope in the Great Lakes, whether it’s the dedication of a new wilderness area or the christening of a boat that will help us study what’s happening with the Great Lakes. But what would it look like if we also shared rituals that allowed us to grieve climate change, invasive species, and pollution? Indigenous communities already have ceremonies that celebrate water and call us to care for it. And some Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious communities have versions of ritual prayer for water. How can we expand and build on these?
Maintaining the Status Quo
Unfortunately, religion and spirituality sometimes aren’t up to the task of helping us transition through this liminal space. Fr. Richard Rohr, a Catholic, Franciscan priest wrote about this challenge back in 2016:
I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old "normal" can occur. Much of my criticism of religion comes about when I see it not only affirming the system of normalcy but teaching folks how to live there comfortably. Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world, just as poor therapy teaches us how to accommodate ourselves to a sometimes small world based on power, prestige, and possessions. A good therapist and a good minister will always open up larger vistas for you, which are by definition risky.
Risking Hope in 2022
After two years of the pandemic and increasingly severe weather patterns, hope can indeed be a risky business. But whether we want it or not, we find ourselves in this liminal space, that moment when we can choose where we go - into a future when we take action to heal our planet's wounds or a persistent past where we continue a status quo that hurts us all.
The choice we make and the direction we head is not inevitable. We know the Earth’s turning towards longer days will happen, no matter what. We can’t make that same assumption about our own turning towards a brighter future.
In this liminal space, I choose light and hope. That hope is grounded not in unrealistic, inevitable optimism but in the belief that we can make a better choice, that together, in 2022, we can take concrete action to heal our world. It’s risky but worth the effort.