Winter Solstice: "Into the Darkest Hour"
by Nancy Arbuthnot
[Madeleine L'Engle is best known for her YA novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," but she was also a poet. This post invites your attention to her poem about the Winter Solstice. See L'Engle's short statement of faith here.]
Today, Wednesday, December 21, the official first day of winter, marks that moment of the winter solstice, when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky reaches its lowest point and the relative yearly motion of the Sun perpendicular to the horizon stops and reverses direction. (The word “solstice” descends from a Latin scientific word solstitium, from sol, "sun,” and -stitium, "stoppage").
Around the world, solstice celebrations mark the occasion with fires and light displays, as the rising sun ending the longest night of the year brings about the return to longer daylight hours. “Into the Darkest Hour,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, is set during the winter solstice, the “darkest” night of the year that yet affirms the return of light:
It was a time like this,
war & tumult of war,
A horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss--
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight--
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
In simple, powerful language, the speaker of “Into the Darkest Hour” details the time of Christ’s birth as “a time like this,/ war & tumult of war.” She marvels that the star could shine at all and that the child could be born in such darkness—“and yet there came the star/and the child most wonderfully there.” Still, the poem wonders, how can we be joyous when the world around us is so broken, “when all things fall apart”? The speaker answers her question by asserting her faith in the human heart, a resting place for divine presence.
Best known for A Wrinkle in Time, the 1963 Newbery-award-winning young adult novel about Meg, her precocious young brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin, who must outwit the forces of evil as they search for Meg’s father, who has disappeared while experimenting with time-travel, Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) also composed stories, plays, autobiographies and poems that deal with faith—the faith, as she described it, “that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”
If we are not too caught up in last-minute attentions to the business of the holiday season, Advent can be a time we can use to meditate on coming out of the darkness. In these last days before Christmas, here’s a writing exercise that may help with these meditations: Think of a time when all seemed dark. Open with a phrase such as, “It was a time when. . . ” and describe that time with three or four phrases. For emphasis, you might want to repeat “It was a time when…” for each description. In L’Engle’s poem, the speaker is a non-personalized, almost prophetic voice—“Hungry yawned the abyss.”
You might want to bring the language to a more personal level, using the first person “I”—“I felt” or “this happened to me.” Then describe what happened or what could happen to bring light to this darkness. Was it something quiet, extended over a period of time, or a more sudden change? Be sure to include figurative language--metaphors or similes or particular details that indicate, rather than state, the feelings you want to evoke. Note how powerfully and succinctly L’Engle’s image of the hungry abyss, for example, brings up all kinds of feelings of fear and desolation. Read the poem you’ve created: from nothing, light.
A Service of Lessons, Carols, and Poems
by Black Poets
By Gerry Hendershot
[The poets pictured above are Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove. Poems by each of them are included the the suggested Order of Worship discussed below.]
The custom of a Christmas worship service of "Lessons and Carols" began in late 19th C. England, and is now observed by many churches in the United States, either on the Sunday nearest Christmas or the following Sunday.
At the Presbyterian church where I worship, the Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, the service has recently included, in addition to scripture readings, poems by contemporary American poets.
National Capital Presbytery, of which Pilgrims is a member, has been focusing attention this year on the continuing, pervasive racism that divides God's People. That prompted me to compile this Order of Worship featuring poems by African-Americans.
My selection and placement of the poems was, of course, constrained by my own knowledge and preferences. But I also tried to choose short poems easily understood on first hearing. If you use them, provide printed copies,.
I did not limit my selection to "religious" poems. Instead, I considered the meanings of the scripture and songs in the service, and searched for contemporary poetic expressions of those meanings in our lives today.
Below is the Order of Worship for a "Service of Lessons, Carols, and Poems," featuring African-American poets. The Order is after an Order used at the Church of the Pilgrims in 2014. The texts of the poems are included after the Order of Worship.
Preparing to Hear the Word
Hymn 119 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Lighting the Christ Candle
Reading "won't you celebrate with me" Louise Clifton
Raise a song of gladness (Taizé)
Raise a song of gladness,
peoples of the earth.
Christ has come, bringing peace, joy to every heart.
Alleluia, alleluia, joy to every heart.
Alleluia, alleluia, joy to every heart.
First Lesson Isaiah 61:10—62:3
A Reading "Dawn Revisited" Rita Dove
Hymn 129 Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Second Lesson Psalm 148
A Reading "I Dream a World" Langston Hugnes
Hymn 113 Angels We Have Heard on High
Third Lesson Galatians 4: 4-7
A Reading "Touched by an Angel" Maya Angelou
Hymn 115 Away in a Manger
Fourth Lesson Luke 2: 22-40
A Reading "A Penitent Considers another Coming of Mary" Gwendolyn Brooks
Hymn 158 Born in the Night
Responding to the Word
Welcome & Announcements
Offertory "Those Winter Sundays," Robert Hayden
Prayer of Dedication "Praise Song," Louise Clifton
Prayers of the People "I Bang the Poems" Demetrius, member of Free Minds
Hymn 134 Joy to the World
Benediction Lift Every Voice and Sing" James Weldon Johnson
won't you celebrate with me
BY LUCILLE CLIFTON
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
BY RITA DOVE
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits -
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.
I Dream A World
by Langston Hughes
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
Touched by an Angel
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free
A Penitent Considers Another
Coming of Mary
BY GWENDOLYN BROOKS
For Reverend Theodore Richardson
If Mary came would Mary
Forgive, as Mothers may,
And sad and second Saviour
Furnish us today?
She would not shake her head and leave
This military air,
But ratify a modern hay,
And put her Baby there.
Mary would not punish men--
If Mary came again.
Those Winter Sundays
(1913 – 1980)
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
By LOUISE CLIFTON
to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.
i was ten. i had never seen
a human woman hurl her basketball
of a body into the traffic of the world.
Praise to the drivers who stopped in time.
Praise to the faith with which she rose
after some moments then slowly walked
sighing back to her family.
Praise to the arms which understood
little or nothing of what it meant
but welcomed her in without judgment,
accepting it all like children might,
I Bang the Poems
DEMETRIUS (member of Free Minds)
I bang the poems for all problems
In all shapes, sizes and forms
I bang the poems for all weather
Cold, hot and sometimes warm
I bang the poems for the people
Who are looking for a sunny day
But can only find a storm
I bang the poems for the prison population
That's steadily growing
I bang the poems for the parents
Whose children get snatched off the streets
Without them even knowing
I bang the poems for all instruments
Tubas, drums and even French horns
I bang the poems for areas in poverty
Where every day guns are drawn
I bang the poems for my friend Dawann
Who died of a gunshot hole
In the same spot where his hat was worn
I bang the poems to death
From the day I was born
Lift every voice and sing
By JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.