It is the winter solstice today, Dec. 21. Which means that this is the shortest day and the longest night of the entire year, the one with the least daylight and the most darkness. Even though it is officially only the first day of winter, for us in northern climes it is very much – given the cold, and especially the long darkness – “the bleak midwinter,” as Christina Rossetti‘s starkly beautiful poem puts it.
The church that Raymond and I attended when we lived in Montreal, and that we still try to stay active in as much as is possible given the geographical distance between Queensborough and there, had what I thought was a moving and significant service this past week.
It was called the Longest Night service, and though it was not technically held on the longest night – it was on Wednesday, Dec. 17 – it was close enough. The reason for the service, as you can see from the sign for it that was outside the church, was to offer a time for reflection and comfort, amid the darkest time of winter, for those experiencing sadness and loss.
Because, you know, Christmas can be a very tough time for those experiencing sadness and loss. Amid all the bustle and light and gifts and carols, many of us think of those loved ones we have lost. It might have happened during the past year, so that this is the first Christmas without the presence of that loved one. I know so many people for whom that is the case this year, and I know that many of my readers do as well. Or the loss might have been in the Christmas period in a previous year; my own father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, died 10 years ago this December, and both of Raymond’s parents, Raymond Sr. (in 1984) and Cécile Brassard (in 2003), died at this time of the year. Or it could be that one just especially misses loved ones who are gone in this season, when everything that happens is supposed to be so happy and filled with family.
And then there are those experiencing other kinds of loss this Christmas: a loss of health; a loss of a job; a loss of happiness; a loss of faith and hope that things will turn out all right.
The Longest Night service was simple and contemplative, and comforting. At the end, a candle light was passed from person to person, so that each one of us held a lighted candle in the darkness. And we sang Silent Night, a quiet hymn about joy and good news arriving in the darkness and silence of night, at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place: a humble stable. “All is calm; all is bright. Christ the Saviour is born!”
One of my late father’s favourite parts of scripture was John 1, verses 1 to 5: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the dark December days after Dad died, I thought a lot about that: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The verse is inscribed on his gravestone. His was an example of a life lived in the light, bringing help and joy to other people in his work as a minister and in his example as an upstanding person and a friend. But the words are meaningful also because they remind us that there is light, even in our bleakest times. Even on our longest and darkest nights.
So tonight, the longest night, I send from the Manse to all those feeling pain and loss in this Christmas season a wish that your darkness may be brightened by happy memories of your loved ones, and by the joy and hope and promise that Christmas brings. Life can be so dark sometimes; but the darkness has not, and will not, and cannot, overcome the light. Light shines in the darkness!