The Longest Night


In Newgrange, Ireland, 5000 or so years ago, people constructed a huge circular earthen structure with an opening that allowed a shaft of light to travel deep into a central chamber on the morning of the winter solstice. There the light illuminated intricate symbols, including eye-shaped carvings.

Today, people gather once again at Newgrange and wait for this dramatic event of the returning light. A few individuals are chosen by lot to be able to enter the mound and experience the shaft of light as those ancestors did.

We can only imagine what stories those humans of thousands of years ago told themselves as they gathered, or what called them to create such a massive monument to this turning of long dark toward the light that points to spring.

We cannot know what those earlier humans believed, but we can know the sense of awe and of hope that that shaft of light calls up in us. This simulation, set to music, may give you some sense of what the experience might have been like. (

Were those human ancestors uncertain that the light would return? Are we uncertain that the light will return for us and for our world?

This is a time of waiting, called Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a time to prepare for the arrival of the Son, who is called the light of the world. That is the Christian story built around this season, but human communities long before Jesus waited and hoped for the return of the light.

Think of that shaft of solstice light entering our hearts as hope in this season. Dag Hammarskjold suggested that to welcome and direct the dawning shaft of light into our hearts requires us to “vanish as an end and remain purely as a means.” That is a tall task for many of us. It can help if we remember those who selflessly made a difference in our own lives and in our world.

I am thinking not only of our cultural heroes and sheroes, but of parents and grandparents and parent-figures who have held and helped us. For us, they are means and not ends. For those who find meaning in the Christian story, perhaps we can even begin to think of Jesus and the love that he proclaimed as a means and not an end.

Tonight, Thursday, at 7 p.m., we will hold our First Unitarian Solstice Service in the Sanctuary.  Many families look forward to this service as the real beginning of their holiday season. Many children will be present but there will also be quiet, rituals for reflection and, of course, the lighting of candles. We will call up the awe of this solstice season.

I hope many of you will join me as we begin our mid-winter celebrations.