WDTPRS O Oriens: Winter Solstice and thoughts on time

This is the Solstice day, for the Northern Hemisphere the day which provides us with the least daylight of the year.  From this point onward in the globe’s majestic arc about the sun, we of the north, benefit from increasing warmth and illumination.

It is as if God in His Wisdom, provided within the framework of the cosmos object lessons by which we might come to grasp something of His good plan for our salvation.

The main door of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the main altar within are exactly aligned with the rising of the sun on the Vernal Equinox.   On the Winter Solstice, the Egyptian obelisk relocated to the center of St. Peter’s Square lines up with the obelisk and the rising Sun on the Winter Solstice. It lines up with the obelisk at Piazza del Popolo on the Summer Solstice.  Popes such as Sixtus V placed these obelisks precisely according to a urban renovation plan.  The obelisk at St. Peter’s serves as the spina of an enormous sundial.

The great churches of Christendom served also as accurate clocks and sometimes you see on the interior pavement an analemma where a shaft of sunlight darts to the floor.  There is a great example of this in Rome at Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Since the very earliest times, Christians observed the turning of the seasons and the changing direction of the sun’s apparent risings and settings. For example, we make much of St. Lucy’s Day in December (Latin for light is lux), and we have in the traditional calendar the Ember Days – and today is Ember Saturday – which tie us in the Northern Hemisphere closer to the seasons, we celebrate St. John the Baptist in the summer at the solstice.

LATIN: O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.

ENGLISH: O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Scripture Reference:

Luke 1:78, 79
Malachi 4:2

Relevant verse of  Veni, Veni Emmanuel:

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

We are all desperately in need of a Savior, a Redeemer who is capable of ransoming from the darkness of our sins and from the blinding and numbing wound of ignorance from which we all suffer.  In their terrible Fall, our First Parents inflicted grave wounds in the souls of every person who would live after them, except of course – by an act of singular grace – the Mother of God.  Our wills are damaged.  Our intellect is clouded.  In Christ we have the Truth, the sure foundation of what is lasting.  All else, apart from Him fails and fades into dark obscurity.  He brings clarity and light back to our souls when we are baptized or when we return to Him through the sacrament of penance.

At Holy Mass of the ancient Church, Christians would face “East”, at least symbolically, so that they could greet the Coming of the Savior, both in the consecration of the bread and wine and in the expectation of the glorious return of the King of Glory.  They turned to the rising sun who is Justice Itself, whose light will lay bare the truth of our every word, thought and deed in the Final Day.

Let us turn to the LIGHT, repent our evil ways and habits, and grasp onto Christ in His Holy Church, for as we read in Scripture:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.”


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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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13 Responses to WDTPRS O Oriens: Winter Solstice and thoughts on time

  1. ray from mn says:

    And all that just happened by “accident”, Fr Z?

    Astronomers, who used to find God in the heavens, now are certain that there are billions of earth-like planets with intelligent civilization upon them out there. I’m thinking they need those civilizations to justify their unbelief. A Merry and a Blessed Christmas. And I have you and your intentions on my prayer list.

  2. mamajen says:

    I look forward to winter solstice every year–knowing each day will be a little longer makes winter slightly easier to get through.

  3. msc says:

    I have to admit that the pedant in me sometimes think it would make more sense if, instead of everyone facing east, churches and people faced Jerusalem (taking the shortest route), like the Jews do (or Muslims do with Mecca). That is, if one were in Amman, one would face west, in Istanbul, south-south-east, and so on. Yes, I know that the east is symbolic of the heavenly Jerusalem as well as the earthly, and all the other reasons (to quote Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of divine revelation.”), but still….

  4. Priam1184 says:

    Aaargh… I forgot it was the Ember Day today. But it is incredible (and not an accident) how well the Liturgical Calendar lines up with the calendar of the seasons. The new year begins Liturgically during the last phase of the part of the year where the day is shortening. Light is born in increasing darkness and no one can see it at first, am I wrong? And this should provide us who live in these dark times a fair degree of hope.

  5. Priam1184 says:

    And the facing east (actual east, not just ‘liturgical east’) thing is still practiced among many of the ancient apostolic churches of the East, and this tradition comes from Matthew 24: 27. What is the great block (except for the current versus populum orientation) to building our church buildings so that the altars face toward the east? If we face east then we face the direction from which the Son of man is to come out of when He returns: we go out to meet him. Face east when we pray if at all possible and face east when we worship. It is amazing how much these small details will change your life.

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Fr. Z., thank you for this history lesson. I had no idea about the obelisks, etc. Our religion is so cool. And thank you for your meditation. Keep up the good work here, as we all need your insights so much.

  7. LadyMarchmain says:

    Thank you for this wonderful expanding meditation on the significance of the East for Christian faith!
    I’ve just started reading J. Heilbron’s The Sun in the Cathedral, about Church architecture as astronomical observatory (1650-1750) (Cassini); Heilbron says this was partly due to the need to estabish accurate dates for Easter.

  8. cwillia1 says:

    Facing east to pray is an apostolic tradition, not just a human custom.

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    We are a few days from the centenary year of this antiphon becoming something like ‘the’ seed of Tolkien’s legendarium of Middle-earth, via the Old English free translation or versification in the Exeter Book (historically attributed to Cynewulf as the first part of a poem designated as “Christ”/”Crist”). I went looking to see if this Advent-antiphons poem was among the many Old English things read aloud on YouTube. The only part I have found so far are a couple of musical settings entitled “Eala Earendel” of part of the section of the poem devoted to this antiphon, where ‘O Oriens’ is rendered ‘Eala Earendel’.

  10. Confitemini Domino says:

    Thank you all for pointing out so many interesting aspects!

    I found the Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons over there at A Clerk of Oxford:
    O Oriens, O Earendel

    And – I hope you aren’t offended by some pagan lyrics – a rare video of Yethro Tull:
    Ring Out, Solstice Bells!

  11. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Confitemini Domino,

    Thank you for the interesting post link – that looks like a blog worth getting better acquainted with!

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Just searching for Cynewulf’s Christ soon turned this up, which looks very interesting and useful:

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Confitemini Domino,

    Thank you for the animated “Solstice Bells”: hearing Cardinal Ratzinger on the Ox and Ass thanks to Fr. Z’s CAzTs after seeing the jester (?) in it with (as I take it) the Hern-the-Hunter sort of cap, I wondered if a proliferation of Ox- and Ass-earred caps might not be the knitting (etc.) worth! (New Evangelization conversation starters?)