What a strange juxtaposition! The longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, is this Thursday, December 21, just days before we celebrate the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. In Des Moines, Iowa, where I live, we will have exactly nine hours, nine minutes, and forty seconds of daylight from sunrise to sunset on December 21.
It’s always disconcerting at this time of year to leave home in the morning in the dark and return home in the dark. But that’s nothing compared to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. In Longyearbyen, whose 2,200 residents are outnumbered by 3,500 polar bears and 4,000 snowmobiles, the sun does not rise for four months!
Every year the sun sets for the last time on October 25th and does not rise again until March 8, when it is first seen illuminating the steps of the old hospital. A week-long celebration called Solfestuka welcomes the return of the sun as everyone in town gathers on the steps of the hospital at exactly 12:15 to await its arrival. Then, from the end of April to end of August, the sun never sets in Longyearbyen.
The truth is that every night is the longest night for some people in our world. The coming of Christmas does not put a halt to suffering, tragedy, death, hate, or bigotry. Nor does it relieve the scourge of poverty, the anxiety of immigrants and refugees seeking a new life in a new land, or the progression of cancer or other diseases.
We had some longest nights last week here in Iowa. Last Tuesday morning, a school bus caught fire in southwest Iowa, killing a sixteen-year-old girl and the bus driver, who was an active member in one of our United Methodist churches. On Friday, an active youth at the local church and conference level who was the son of one our pastors died in a car accident. In the days between, there have been major surgeries, deaths of family members, and diagnoses of cancer and other major diseases. There are no words to describe the grief of families who have been devastated by these tragedies.
Every day is the longest night for someone. And the pain is only intensified at this time of year when our culture assumes that everyone is happy and full of good cheer. How might our Christmas celebrations gain more depth if we consciously recognized that Christmas is not always a joyous time for people who are grieving, suffering, sick, or struggling for whatever reason? How might we gain a more outward focus at Christmas by acknowledging that God can be found in the darkness as well as in the light?
The prophecy of Isaiah 9:2 is one of our lectionary Christmas Eve scriptures (Year C), “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” Yet the same prophet (Isaiah 45:3) also shares this wisdom, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”
It is gratifying to observe how many churches are reaching out to those who experience more darkness than light at this time of year. Longest Night or Blue Christmas services are intended to provide a safe space for those who are mourning, grieving, or are experiencing sadness in their life. Holy Communion, healing prayers, silence, candle lighting, and meditative Christmas hymns mark the reflective nature of these services.
Another strange juxtaposition is that December 21, the Winter Solstice, is the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle, established in the twelfth century. The Roman Catholic Church has since moved St. Thomas’s Day to July 3, but the Anglican Church still observes the day on December 21. It’s another reminder that the doubt that Thomas experienced when he struggled to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, is the same doubt that many of us experience in December when everyone else is full of Christmas cheer and we only see loss.
One of the most meaningful Christmas carols for me over the years has been stanza three of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. I can never sing it without weeping because these words not only speak of the weariness that many of us feel at this time of year, but they express our solidarity with the least, the last, and the lost of the world and all those who are not able to “celebrate” because of their own grief.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
How do the residents of Longyearbyen, isolated on an island in the Arctic Circle, survive those long four months without any light at all? Unfortunately, the challenges of Longyearbyen are far greater than darkness. The weather in Longyearbyen is rapidly changing because of global warming. And with increasingly warmer temperatures rising at a much greater rate than the rest of the world, come many problems.
According to Arctic climate expert David Barber of the University of Manitoba, higher temperatures and melting permafrost and glaciers are having “profound effects on the physics, biology, and geochemistry of the Arctic.”[i] This, in turn, is causing deadly avalanches that have destroyed homes, closed roads, and discouraged adventure tourists. Some residents have gone bankrupt and have had to leave the island.
The people who live on Longyearbyen choose to be there. There is no indigenous population. The permanent residents are mavericks and individualists: hardy and unique. And, amazingly, SAD, (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a winter depression caused by the lack of sunlight, is rarely found in Longyearbyen. Why are people willing to live in a place that might be described as God-forsaken? How do they survive the long winters and relish the treasures of darkness?
The key is relationships. During those long months, residents are intentional about creating community gatherings and participating in joint projects around town. They do not remain isolated but understand that, together, they can live creatively and joyously and find riches in hidden places.There is only one church in Longyearbyen called Svalbard Church, which was consecrated on August 28, 1921 and is part of the Church of Norway (Lutheran). The church was bombed in World War 2, burned to the ground, and was rebuilt in 1956-59. Svalbard Church extends its ministry to everyone, regardless of church affiliation, and includes all settlements on the island as well as fishing stations.
Every Tuesday night the church has a community meal and a time for informal conversation. On Wednesdays, a children’s gospel choir called Polargospel practices. On Thursday mornings there is a gathering for parents of young children. And Svalbard Church has the northernmost scouting group in the world! There are many other activities during the year, all intended to share the love of Jesus, build community, and enhance relationships.
There are four months of longest nights in Longyearbyen, yet the community and church survive and thrive because they care about each other and make sure that everyone is accepted and valued. I wonder. Could we, who live in much more comfortable surroundings, become more like Longyearbyen? How might God open our eyes to the darkness of the impending longest night and reach out to those who are living in their own darkness of grief, doubt, loneliness, and hopelessness?
Can we walk alongside those who are toiling along the climbing way with painful steps and slow? Will we take the time to rest with them beside the weary road and hear the angels sing? Can we, too, claim the treasures of darkness as well as the joy of the great light?
May the grace of Jesus Christ enfold, encourage, and shape you on the Longest Night, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and into a New Year of hope.
- The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 8, 2018.
[i] World’s Most Northerly Town on Verge of Vanishing, Matthew Vickery, USA Today, December 8-10, 2017.