The Dark of the Year

The longest night, the shortest day, the turn of the year – and I think likely the oldest of our human celebrations, once our remotest ancestors began to pay attention to things. They would have noticed, and in the fullness of time, erected monumental stones to mark the progression of the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons, the light and the dark and all of it. The farther north and south you go from the equator, the more marked are the seasonal differences in the length of day and night. Just north of the Arctic Circle in the year I spent at Sondrestrom Greenland, those mid-summer nights were a pale grey twilight – and the midwinter days a mere half-hour-long lessening of constant dark at about midday. It was an awesome experience, and exactly how awesome I only realized in retrospect. How my ancestors, in Europe, or even perhaps in the Middle East, would have looked to the longer days which would come after the turning of the year; the darkness lessening, sunlight and warmth returning for yet another season of growing things in the ground, and in the blessed trees, when the oxen and sheep, and other domesticated critters would bear offspring. And the great primitive cycle of the year would turn and turn again, with the birth of the Christ added into it in due time.

Of course, Christ wasn’t really born in mid-winter – that was not the time when shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground – but the promise of His birth, of light and joy and sunshine was added retroactively to those pagan festivities marking the longest night and shortest day. (Likely Christ was born in the early spring.) Christmas and Easter, the pole-stars of the Christian year and liturgy; the birth and the sacrifice; I’ll not get into the other pagan parallel observances. The colors of the paraments and vestments went through their turns – green, red, purple, gold and white, and usually not much linked to the absolute seasons. But still – there you are, the turning of the year, the festivals and observances and all, marking the time and tradition.

I was thinking of this, listening to one of my own personal observances last Wednesday; the live radio broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge. I’ve never been to that service – but I visited the chapel, once upon a time. The chapel was light and beautiful, walls of glass and fragile-seeming stone tracery, a late gothic bubble floating on the gentle green-lawn bank of the Cam. The Nine Lessons and Carols has been a tradition since the end of WWI … a little short of a hundred years, a brief time as the traditions of Christianity go. And I was thinking and wondering as I listened, and wrote and surfed the Internet – how deep do those traditions actually go in these days. One of the internet stories that I scanned – about the established church in Germany – contained a riveting phrase:

Christmas in Germany is like a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside. The forms of the holiday are merrily observed, but not the faith. To declare one’s belief in a personal God counts for proof of mental defect here as well as in most parts of Europe, especially among educated people.

A brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside…which reminded me again of that summer of 1976 when my brother and sister and I did England and Scotland the Youth Hostel and BritRail Pass way. And being well-brought up, we went to church services at the nearest available and interesting-looking church wherever we happened to be on a Sunday morning. To be fair and to acknowledge that anecdote is not data, on most of those Sundays we were well out in the countryside. There usually wasn’t much else to do on a Sunday except go to church … but still, even thirty-five years ago it was perfectly plain to us that most of those churches visited in England had the lovely sanctuaries, soaring music, beautiful, comforting ritual … and mostly empty pews. Only in a couple of Presbyterian churches in Scotland did there seem to be anything like a full house and passionate enthusiasm from either minister or flock.

These days, whenever I see a story in the Daily Mail or in the Telegraph which touches on matters of faith, I can depend on most of the comments posted to be utterly contemptuous of religious belief and faith – especially for Christians of whatever denomination.(To be fair, they are usually contemptuous of Muslims, but also and worryingly – of Jews.) This is both baffling and dispiriting; I’d not be surprised that readers of The Guardian and similar high-toned publications consider sincere religious belief to be infra dig and that appearance in one of those beautiful and historic houses of worship is obligatory only twice yearly and on the occasion of a wedding, christening or funeral, if that. That Daily Mail commenters seem to feel the same … is unsettling. I would guess that if anything, the Daily Mail is aimed towards exactly the demographic – blue-collar, working-class and not educated much beyond the English equivalent of junior collage and trade school. Backbone of the country, salt of the earth, they used to say, somewhat patronizingly. I must note that my three British grandparents and great-aunt Nan were exactly that sort. In the US, that exact demographic is also the backbone of the various established churches. In the main and quietly for the most part, churches are the quiet bulwark of many communities. They offer emotional support in the main, and quite often actual economic support when needed to members in good standing and often to those without any standing at all. This I know from having been involved in church work, and through having lived in Utah (where the LDS is the quiet power behind the throne of ordinary politics).

There is a cultural value in religious belief; a shared belief lending confidence and strength to a culture – strength such as in Poland within living memory led to the downfall of a Communist system – just to name one. Yes, it sometimes lead to petty and hypocritical things – unlovely sanctimony, judgment of neighbors and vicious clannishness with regard to those designated as outsiders being the least of it. But somehow, this seems to have all been drained away, the limited bad and the solid good, all together. As far as Christianity goes, Western Europe does appear as a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside – a hollow thing, easily smashed.

Share and discuss – whither Britain and Europe generally?

(Crossposted at

6 thoughts on “The Dark of the Year”

  1. A couple of observations. I read the other day that mainstream Protestant churches in South Dakota were a bulwark of the McGovern campaign in 1972. They were a big part of his campaign and, when he lost badly, they did too.

    Evangelicals are replacing the Catholic Church in central America, I have read.

    Estimates vary, but according to the State Department of the United States, barely 50% of Salvadorans now identify as Catholic, and in Honduras and Belize the share has dropped below half. Nicaragua is close behind. In Mexico, by comparison, 90% have kept the Catholic faith.

    My favorite church in Europe is Sainte Chapelle although when we attended Mass in Noter Dame, my wife started talking about wanting to convert. It was beauty, not liturgy that intrigued her.

    Personally, I am agnostic and am not a fan of the “Young Earth Creationists” who drove me away from Ricochet. Today Michael Medved had a guy on who wrote a piece in the WSJ that science proves that God exists.

    What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.

    I don’t agree with this but am perfectly happy to see people who believe in literal creation while I believe in evolution and the possibility that, for example, Archea might be found on Mars beneath the soil.

    I just get a bit annoyed when the same certainty that atheists belabor, turns out to be common with creationists. I have no problem with Intelligent Design but am reluctant to hold that God requires human life on Earth be unique.

    Most of our universe appears to be a hostile place for life to exist with no planetary bodies except Earth harboring life as we know it. However, similar notions were previously thought of Earth’s extreme environments such as acidic hot springs, deepsea vents or solar salterns, which were believed to be too “extreme” to nurture life. Yet numerous studies over the last decades have shown that these extreme environments actually harbor an incredible diversity of Eukarya, Bacteria and Archaea (Rothschild and Mancinelli 2001; van der Wielen et al. 2005). The very same may hold true for the search for extraterrestrial life: Just because we have not found it yet, does not mean it cannot exist. However, there is still the question of what are we actually looking for, and where?

  2. >Most of our universe appears to be a hostile place for life to exist with no planetary bodies except Earth harboring life as we know it<

    most of what we 'see' in the universe happened a long time. things change. speed of light etc..

  3. “His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.”

    This is the so-called Anthropic Principle.
    The problem is that from our view inside our tiny corner of the universe, we can’t ever fully determine what really is essential for life or how many other unimaginable parameters could potentially exist.
    Rather than the universe adapting to us, it’s just as likely that we adapted to it.

    Anyway, if your faith requires scientific validation then it isn’t faith, is it.

    All I know is evolution is compatible with my religious beliefs. I think it’s entirely plausible (and true in my mind) that God created the evolutionary mechanism for life to exist and adapt, and he employs his love and graces to guide it’s course.

  4. “it’s just as likely that we adapted to it.”

    Exactly. There is an interesting book called, Life as We Do Not Know It.” From one review,

    Ward is at his best when making statements that are based on the best and latest studies in molecular biology, evolutionary biology and related fields, such as classifying viruses as living.

    He’s about as good when conjecturing that in other ways, we may have too limited a view of what constitutes life here on Earth.

    He combines this with his paleontologist’s knowledge of geography to say that we … especially “we” being folks like NASA, SETI, etc., may have way too narrow of a view of what constitutes life on other planets, and just what “alien” life may involve.

    Even fifteen years ago, we had no idea that Archea was another whole kingdom of life. I have a book on “extremophile physiology, which discusses how living organisms can survive in hot sulfur vents in geysers or on the ocean bottom.

    Other aspects of archaeal biochemistry are unique, such as their reliance on ether lipids in their cell membranes. Archaea use more energy sources than eukaryotes: these range from organic compounds, such as sugars, to ammonia, metal ions or even hydrogen gas. Salt-tolerant archaea (the Haloarchaea) use sunlight as an energy source, and other species of archaea fix carbon; however, unlike plants and cyanobacteria, no known species of archaea does both.

    I think the first, and maybe only, form of extraterrestrial life we will find will be Archea or something like them. With the discovery of these organisms, life has gotten a lot more interesting. I have no problem with an “Intelligent Design” concept of God in which the rules are established and living things follow those rules.

    When I accidentally get into a debate with a fundamentalist that rejects evolution, I ask them about Rickettsiae and their relationship to mitochondria. I have yet to meet one who knows what they are yet they will lecture me about how anti-evolutionists know as much about molecular biology as I do. At Ricochet, one of them, a pediatrician I believe, finally began bragging that she went to better medical school than I did. Great argument !

  5. Agreed. I read the craziest things about “what’s necessary to support life,” as if we had a clue. It’s like saying life can’t develop without an oxygen atmosphere, which is obviously ignorant even if you limit yourself to the experience on this particular planet.

    To be fair, I also read the craziest things about the origin of life on Earth, as if we had a clue. I’m a materialist on the subject, so I’m inclined to look for theories that can account for the development of the original self-replicating organisms by ordinary chemical processes and blind chance (my view of Intelligent Design assumes that God works through these processes, though He hasn’t seen fit to explain Himself to me on the subject). I can see that, once you’ve got replicability with variation, selective pressure will result in evolution. But everything I’ve ever been able to read on the subject falls down when it comes to explaining what got the cycle to get started in the first place: before evolution starts, there’s no “selective pressure” to develop self-replicating structures. Our understanding of the spontaneous development of the earliest and most primitive self-replicating structures is still in its infancy.

    My money is on a materialistic explanation eventually, but I’m impatient with evolutionists who sneer at creationism, before they even bother figuring out the hardest parts of how this whole business might have happened on its own.

Comments are closed.