Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Longest Day

In the 19th century, a Christian asked a famous Rabbi why Jews do not have a catechism, a written summary of their beliefs. The Rabbi answered, "The Calendar is our catechism." For a Jew, the rhythms and rhymes of the calendar formed a narrative which was meant to be lived. The catechism was not read as much as it was experienced as the year unfolded.
It's true for Catholics, too, as we live our own liturgical calendar (which is essentially the Jewish calendar transformed around the person and life of Jesus). 

There are so many treasures hidden in the calendar. Here's one I find particularly rich, especially if you're a sun lover. It's about the theological meaning of longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, June 21.

Look at the calendar and you'll see that it is the Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. Which may seem innocuous enough. 

But zoom out a bit--bear with me if you dare--and you'll see that June 24 is the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Spin the calendar like a globe and you'll see that perfectly opposite this on the calendar is the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, December 25 (obviously Dec 24 being the Vigil). 

What does it mean? Saint John the Baptist is born just as the light begins to fail. Similar to many of the Old Testament prophets, his arrival both announces--and through that divine word--it also triggers the darkness, which is summed up by collapse of the cosmos. John the Baptist is "Elijah" whose entrance onto the scene initiates famine and strife...almost to the point of complete darkness. He--Elijah in the Old and John the Baptist in the new--brings the situation to point of trial, tribulation, desperation and darkness. 

The point is St. John the Baptist triggers--and his birthday on the calendar liturgically coincides with--the diminishment of the light and warmth, two things we need for life. Recall that John Himself said as much of himself: "I must decrease" (John 3:30). 

And so in our experience of our annual lived "catechism" we experience the diminishment of light at the coming of the greatest Prophet, John the Baptist, who announces and triggers the attack of darkness that the Lord Himself will overcome. Just as John the Baptist and Jesus worked in a kind of tandem of inverse complementarity, so the two halves of the calendar: From June 24 onward, the light and warmth of the sun gradually, if imperceptibly, diminishes...right up until Dec 24, when in the that dark and cold of Christmas Eve, Christ is born....of whom John says, "He must increase" (John 3:30).

Just to make the point clearer, St. John the Baptist will liturgically diminish into his own darkness on August 29, when we celebrate his beheading. The light will continue to fade until, as I said, the birth of the Light on Christmas, and gradually His work of restoring the cosmos will gradually unfold. In Holy Week, His struggle with darkness and death with its climactic moment when He dies, rises, ascends and sends the heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (all this happening usually in March or April).

So: since Jesus' gift of the Holy Spirit is able to recreate and perfect all of creation, the light and warmth continues to expand until June 21st...the longest day of the year. What John the Baptist announces and inaugurates--the coming of God's judgment on this world--Jesus brings about (in the Cross) and overcomes (in the Resurrection, etc). All this is indirectly and quietly packed into the liturgical experience of June 21, and the surrounding bright days. 

In Arizona where I live, June 21st is long. The sun stays in the sky seemingly for ever. It always makes me think of that mysterious vision that St. John has in the Book of Revelation of when Heaven and Earth definitively come together, and God's creation is perfected. He says, "The night will be no more. They will need no light from lamps of the sun, for the Lord God will be their light." June 21st is meant to be an experience, a delightful and earthly reminder, of this theological truth of the future. (I can't imagine how must more "eternal" the day feels in Alaska or other more Northerly places on June 21st). Shout out to you Michiganders. 

So that's what June 21 means on the Catholic liturgical calendar. It symbolizes the day when the Light of Christ has expanded to fill every dark nook and cranny of creation and when the "night" of sadness and death will be no more. 

It teaches us not to fear when God allows the light to diminish (who is the Elijah and John the Baptist in your life? Who in your life "triggers" your humility and helps your ego and plans to diminish? Follow them!). 

It teaches us that when we let God (however humbly and imperceptibly) into our lives in the silent and dark of Dec 24...He will, if we permit Him, make us to resemble, little by little, the glory of June 21.

So I give you June 21st: the longest--and probably a rather unnoticed but nonetheless awesome--day of that Catholic catechism we call the calendar.  

1 comment:

  1. Cool. I never related the summer solstice to the Parousia before . . . nice!