A Winter Solstice Service

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bell Sounds

Announcements of the Life of the Congregation

Prelude– What Child Is This

Opening Words

Our Unitarian Universalist traditions draw from many sources, these include:

“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

May we fully inhabit, reclaim and be nurtured by all these sources in the days around the winter solstice.

Opening Hymn #235 – Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly

Welcome and Lighting of the Chalice # 451

Flame of fire, spark of the universe

That warmed our ancestral hearth

Agent of life and death

Symbol of truth and freedom

We strive to understand ourselves

And our earthly home

Lighting the Advent Candle

Today marks the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Let us join together in reading the text in your order of worship. Please read the appropriate paragraph after each candle is lit.

[Light the candle on the eastern side of the wreath and speak these words:]

Spirit of the East, spirit of air, of morning and springtime: Be with us as the sun rises, in times of beginning, times of planting. Inspire us with the fresh breath of courage as we go forth into new adventures.

[Light the candle on the southern side of the wreath and speak these words:]

Spirit of the South, spirit of fire, of noontime and summer: Be with us through the heat of the day and help us to be ever growing. Warm us with strength and energy for the work that awaits us.

[Light the candle on the western side of the wreath and speak these words:]

Spirit of the West, spirit of water, of evening and autumn: Be with us as the sun sets and help us to enjoy a rich harvest.

Flow through us with a cooling, healing quietness and bring us peace.

[Light the candle on the northern side of the wreath and speak these words:]

Spirit of the North, spirit of earth, of nighttime and winter: Be with us in the darkness, in the time of gestation. Ground us in the wisdom of the changing seasons as we celebrate the spiraling journey of our lives.

Hymn # 236 – O Thou Joyful Day

READING

One Small Face

With mounds of greenery, the brightest ornaments, we bring high summer to our rooms, as if to spite the somberness of winter come.

In time of want, when life is boarding up against the next uncertain spring, we celebrate and give – of what we have – away.

All creatures bend at rules, even the stars constrained.

There is a blessed madness in the human need to go against the grain of cold and scarcity.

We make a holiday, the rituals varied as the hopes of humanity.

The reasons as obscure as ancient solar festivals, as clear as joy on one small face.

Meditation on Leaving our Watermill Home

Today, many small faces and large ones are smiling as we begin to move our belongings from this building, where we have met for 19 years – that’s nearly a thousand Sundays of memories here – to our new home on the BH-SH turnpike. Today and this hour will be the last time we meet as a congregation behind these doors.

As we prepare for our new beginning in a home of our own, we also bring an end to a remarkable chapter in the history of our community. In the days to come, new members will join our congregation who know nothing of our time in this building. And 19 years from today, perhaps only a handful, if any of us, will remain to remember and tell the story of these years.

Let’s pause in quiet thought for a moment and imagine what we’d want to tell that congregation of 19 years in the future about these times – what lesson would we carry from this time into that, what should they not forget?

At the end of this meditation, I’ll invite you to call out from where you sit with a word, a phrase or a thought that might merit being carried across the decades.

Let me break our silence by sharing my thought:

humility – for 19 years, we did wondrous things with no home of our own.

Do others have words or thoughts to share?

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

A performance for all ages – The Rainbow Fish

Thank you for that fine performance…

In the mythology of Christianity, animals, too, played a role in the arrival and welcoming of the Christian messiah.

Hymn # 243 – Jesus, Our Brother

May our own generosity in this season and all seasons flow to the needy and afflicted with the same spirit of self-sacrifice and love.

In that spirit, too, our offerings for the work of this congregation will now be given and received.

Offering, Helping Hand Fund and Chalice Lighters

Offertory Coventry Carol

A Time of Meditation and Reflection

HYMN # 55 Dark of Winter – new tune – Lysbet will play it through twice before we sing it.

Meditation

Silence

Homily

The living tradition which we Unitarian Universalists share draws from many sources:

“Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men

Wisdom from the world’s religions

Jewish and Christian teachings;

Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science,

And lastly, but by no means least,

Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

These earth-centered traditions hold a special place in my heart and in the hearts of most Unitarians, They find their evocation in our seventh principle: the affirmation and promotion of respect for the interconnected web of all existence, of which we are a part.

For me, the Winter Solstice speaks directly to that Seventh Principle and, through the eons, has served as a focal point for virtually all the inspirational sources we Unitarian Universalists claim as our heritage. So let’s talk about the Solstice and these various sources that inspire our Unitarian faith tradition for surely, in our Unitarian Universalist Calendar there is no other time we are so strongly reminded of the multiple sources upon which our movement is based.

I find my great affection for the Winter Solstice is tightly connected to “the results of science”, for ultimately the winter solstice is a creature of the scientific and rational world. Like gravity, it is a fact that all may observe. But unlike gravity, we can also understand the features of the rational and scientific world that make it so; we can directly experience that transcending mystery and wonder.

As days shorten and nights lengthen leading to the longest night of the year. We can follow the reverse leading to the summer solstice – a topic for another service. No amount of scientific understanding of the physics involved has ever reduced my inchoate joy when, at last, the days begin to lengthen again.

This season finds the winter solstice occurring at 1:35 PM EST on DEC 21, 2005.

For those of you who may have forgotten your high school astronomy, earth science or physics, here’s how the Solstice works:

First, a thought experiment: if the earth’s two poles pointed straight up and straight down, with respect to the plane of our orbit around the sun, would there be any seasons?

No. As we may remember from high school, the earth’s axis of rotation, it’s poles, is tilted about 23 degrees out of true vertical with respect to the plane of our orbit around the sun. Without that tilt, there would uniform exposure of the earth’s surface to sunlight all the time. At the north and south poles, the sun would be forever perched on the horizon, gliding around in a full circle once every 24 hours, never really rising, never setting. In this imaginary Earth without a tilted axis, the sun would be directly overhead at noon on the equator every day.

But the earth is tilted on its axis with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun. So, as it orbits the sun, this tilted orientation alternately points one pole and, six months later, the other pole towards the sun. Taking the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere as an arbitrary starting point, finds the earth’s north pole tiled about 23 degrees towards the sun. For an observer on the north pole, the sun would stand about 23 degrees above the horizon, it would be Noon at the north pole at the moment of the summer solstice. Three months later, at the Fall equinox, the sun would set below the horizon, it will not rise above the horizon again for six more months. Six months after the Summer Solstice, the north pole is pointed away from the sun, tilted into darkness by that lop-sided orientation to the plane of our planets orbit.

Such a small eccentricity, yet from it flows the seasons that dominate life in the higher latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres. As a pagan, transcendental, spiritual, atheist, I call to your attention the great inspiring values and enduring impact of the Winter Solstice on the lives of us who claim ancestry from the hardy stock inhabiting the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

The winter solstice is so much more than a mere astronomical marker in our relentless circling of the sun. Throughout the ages it has inspired fear, awe, respect, terror, love, generosity, festivals, revelries and more.

In Christian and Jewish mythology and legend, the northern Winter Solstice plays a significant role.

For many Christians, only Easter is a more important time of religious observance.

The Christian sacred texts are silent on the actual date of Jesus’ birth. One gospel notes in passing that “shepherds where out with their flocks at night”, suggesting a warmer time of year in the Middle East than late December. Indeed, it wasn’t until the fourth century that Pope Julius I set the official observance of Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December. That date was selected to counterbalance the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan Solstice observances at about the same time. The symbolic “triumph of light over darkness” at the winter solstice was not lost on early Christians!

Hanukkah is not of the same stature among Jewish religious ceremonies, it still resonates deeply within that faith tradition wherever it has brushed up against northern Europe, Christianity and the darkness of winter. The Jewish festival of lights is the celebration of a legend that tells of how, following a battle and the subsequent recapture of a town, the victorious Jews set about to reconsecrate the local temple, part of that ritual involved lighting the traditional menorah. But insufficient oil was present to see them through to the completion of the reconsecration. So, the legend holds, the single day’s worth of oil they had available burned in a menorah for eight days, allowing the sanctification of more oil to feed the ceremonial lamp without having it go out. However, the timing of Hanukkah in the Jewish calendar is tightly tied to the Winter Solstice, it always occurs during the new moon closest to the Solstice. This means one night of the eight day observance falls on the longest and DARKEST night of the year, clearly marking the descent of this festival from pagan rituals that served to recognize the longest night of the year.

Outside of the mainstream western religions, the Winter Solstice played perhaps even a larger large role, providing a center for ceremony, revelries, and festivities that make our 21st Century American Christmas look tame and transparent by comparison.

The Roman recognition of Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, was both a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. Riotous merry-making took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life’s continuity, and processions of people with masked or blackened faces and exotic hats danced through the streets.

On second thought, except for no criminals executed, that sounds rather much like our own 21st Century American Christmas after all, doesn’t it?

The ancient Swedes, on the other hand, manifested genuine bloody-mindedness for their Solstice Celebration, the midvinterblot, which featured both animal and human sacrifices. This festival paid tribute to the local gods, appealing to them to relax the grip of winter. Those powerful gods echo through the centuries, two days of the week in English honor them: Thursday (Thor’s Day) and Friday (Freja’s Day) – suffice it to say that we anglos come from a savage Solstice tradition only slightly ameliorated by the arrival of 13th Century missionaries in the high latitudes.

The Winter Solstice: we find its influence, its traces, its presence, its possibility within our UU sources

We have direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder that is the Solstice

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men have been influenced and shaped by the seasonal tempering of the Winter Solstice

Wisdom from the world’s religions bears shading and nuancing from the Winter Solstice

Jewish and Christian teachings as they are alive to day show the profound impact of all the past power and tradition of the Solstice;

Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science connect directly to the facts of the Winter Solstice and all that has been sown by it over the ages.

And lastly, but by no means least,

Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” These are stirred STILL by the majesty and wonder of the winter solstice.

The Winter Solstice season runs like a thread through many, perhaps even ALL of our religious sources; in some transcendent way the Winter Solstice touches and pulls deeply at the heart of western religiosity itself. For that reason it richly merits a central position in our canon of traditions. Let us therefore embrace this season and the lessons of the Winter Solstice.

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