When I was younger, my favorite day of the year was June 21, the summer solstice, the day when there was the most daylight. But in the last decade or so, especially since I began to celebrate Advent more deliberately, my favorite day has become the shortest day of the year: Dec. 21, the winter solstice.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks "the longest night," the 24 hours in which there are the most hours and minutes of darkness and the fewest hours and minutes of daylight. So on Dec. 22, the pendulum begins to swing back. The tide begins to turn. The daylight begins to increase, and will do so for another six months.
This season, there will be a worship service on the longest night at my Mennonite church here in Newton, Kan. The pastor learned of "Longest Night" services from the Presbyterians-like me, he has personal experience with that denomination, although this was not something I remember observing in either of the Presbyterian congregations I attended during my years living in eastern Kentucky. When I looked up the practice on the Internet, I found that churches of all denominations regularly hold these services on December 21-I found examples from United Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ as well as Presbyterian congregations.
A worship service for the longest night is meant to recognize that at a time when our Western culture says we should be happy, joyful, festive, eager to bustle about and full of good cheer, many of us are anything but-and being surrounded by what seems like overwhelming evidence that "everyone feels happy but me" can make it even worse. For many, the reasons are deeply personal. We have lost a loved one and their face and voice will no longer be part of our traditional celebration of Christmas and New Year's (and I recognize that we may be missing a creature other than human, as I lost my beloved cat of 16 years during the holiday season five years ago). A cherished relationship has ended in estrangement or other permanent separation. We are watching the health of someone we love fail, or our own health may be deteriorating. We may be facing divorce, infertility, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, inability to provide for a family (especially children) in a way they need or expect. You can fill in the blanks yourself.
In addition, the state of the world does not necessarily inspire great hope. We know that people are suffering in our own country, in Pakistan and India, in Guatemala and other parts of Central America, in southeast Asia, as the result of enormous natural disasters that have occurred in the past year. People are displaced by war all over the world. Children are forced to be soldiers or to sell their bodies on the streets for sheer survival. Women are raped and girls are denied education.
Thousands of Muslims as well as Christians around the globe have been waiting and praying throughout this Advent season for the lives and freedom of four Christian Peacemaker Teams members. Two long-term CPTers, James Loney (Canada) and Tom Fox (United States), and two members of the CPT delegation that Loney was leading, Norman Kember (United Kingdom) and Harmeet Singh Sooden (Canada), went missing in Baghdad sometime during the weekend of Nov. 25-27. Their hosts call themselves the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. They demanded the release of all Iraqi prisoners held inside and outside Iraq by Dec. 10-which happened to be International Human Rights Day-or the men would be killed. But more than a week later, as of this writing, there has been no word from or about the four.
Since Nov. 29, when the men's disappearance was publicly confirmed, there have been vigils held all over the United States and Canada and around the world, and thousands (probably tens of thousands) of prayers said, for these four men and for all who are held prisoner in Iraq and around the world because of how their consciences directed them to be and to act.
How long the night must seem for the families and loved ones of prisoners like James, Tom, Norman and Harmeet. For Christians in this season of Advent, how endless the waiting.
The earth still turns on its axis. For six months, it moves away from the sun. On Dec. 21, we in the Northern Hemisphere will know the longest night of the year. And on Dec. 22, the earth will continue to turn on its axis. Only now it will begin moving back toward the sun.
"In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:4-5, NRSV).
No matter how long the night, the light can never be extinguished.
[Author's note: To read more about Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden and some of the statements made on their behalf over the past weeks, go to <http://www.cpt.org/iraq/response/resources.php>.]