Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn - the cycle and circle of Nature's year. In an age where most of us have lost touch with the life and rhythms of our mother, the Earth, the cycle of the year is a sure way back into the Center of Life. As we struggle to reclaim the lost heritage of our natural life rhythms, it is through the gateways of the Wheel of the Year that we come to understand once again the cycle of birth, growth, fulfillment, decline, and finally death, which turns to birth once more.
Winter Solstice is the birthday of the Sun and of the year. It is a time when we experience the greatest darkness, when the hours of darkness are so much greater than the hours of daylight. And yet, it is within this time of greatest darkness that the Light of the World is reborn, for now the hours of daylight will begin to grow and the hours of darkness will lessen.
In all cultures, the Winter Solstice is a time of rejoicing, a time of thanksgiving and a time of hope, when the beauty and truth of the Light is remembered and honored. We light fires and gather together with our loved ones, we give and receive presents, and we make wishes for the New Year. For this small space of time, we actually come close to living the ideal of "Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men" which the angels proclaimed in the skies over Bethlehem.
At each of the eight gateways of the year, we connect to the natural laws governing this world and the cosmos. Inner and outer become One, and Life's dramas are manifest. But it is at Winter Solstice that the truth of our Oneness is most evident, for the darkness that we face is our own darkness and aloneness, and the Light becomes most precious as we realize that it is through the Light that we come to love and appreciate each other.
This tale has been told by the women of my family for many generations. It is always told before an open fire on the darkest day of the year. When I was a little girl, this was one of my favorite times, for although the days were short, there was always light and joy and hope in our house as the family gathered 'round the glowing fire to listen to my grandmother tell this story. As I grew older, my mother took her turn as storyteller, and now it is my turn to tell you this tale.
It is a story about Grace. Do you know what Grace is? No? Well, Grace is a gift that Spirit bestows on all of us, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It is an unexpected gift of Love, and we need to learn to recognize it and be thankful for it.
Once upon a time, there was a land shrouded in darkness. This was not always so: at one time, it had been a land of great Light and depth and beauty.
Until the darkness appeared. And strange things began to happen.
At first, the darkness was just a vague impression on the periphery of sight, an uneasiness that tickled awareness, then fled. Over time, the tickle turned into a shiver as the darkness sent out tendrils like premonitions. People were not afraid, however, for one reason: it made the Light in the land even more beautiful and radiant. The darkness became a riddle that called out for an answer. And as time went on and the riddle went unanswered, people forgot to notice and give thanks for the Light, for they were fascinated by the darkness. And slowly, over time, the darkness spread and the Light became dimmer and dimmer, though the people didn't even notice that the Light had changed. You see, their eyes became accustomed to the dimness and they could see just as well as ever, or so they thought.
But not all the people forgot the beauty of the Light that used to cover the land. Sometimes they read about it in old books; oftentimes they dreamt about it; and some passed the knowledge of it down within their families from generation to generation. And in not forgetting the Light, it turned out that it lived on in their imaginations so brightly that it filled their eyes with its very own clarity, and they could see things that other people could not see. But the ones who remembered were only a few compared to the others, and if they talked about what they could see, they were most often ignored and sometimes reviled.
Eventually the land grew so dark that more people began to acknowledge that they really couldn't see very well at all! But since there were so many others still stumbling around in the dark, everything became even more chaotic and frantic. In short, things got even worse!
And the darkness deepened.
One day, a woman sat watching her children at play. This woman was neither young nor yet very old, and her children were not babes nor yet were they grown. And because she was one of those who loved the memory of the Light, and had imagined it and longed for it until it shone in her eyes, she was seeing something that no one else saw. She saw her children, who had been filled with a sense of her own inner Light, growing dimmer and dimmer with each passing day, for the full weight of the darkness around them was too hard to fight off.
Gradually a resolve grew in that mother, until finally one night before she put her children to bed, she told them that she was leaving on a journey. Since she did not know how long she would be gone, she wanted them to take care of each other, to love each other, and to remember her own love for them every day. She promised she would come back to them.
The woman set out that very night, determined to travel to the source of the Light which used to cover the land, and entreat it to come back with her. Although she had no idea where to begin her search, she walked through the cold lonely winter night with great joy in her heart, despite her anguish over leaving her children. For she rejoiced in the thought of seeing the Light at last, the Light she had loved and imagined all her life. She soon found herself singing to the Light in the dark of the night. And although their own light was very much dimmed in that land, still the stars and the moon in heaven heard that mother's song, and they sang back to her of the glory she was seeking.
In the morning, the woman came to the outskirts of a village. But something was terribly wrong! Trees had been uprooted and left to rot, the fields had been dug up in piles of dirt, while all the animals in the fields looked as if no one had taken them back to the barn for weeks! In the village, it was even worse. People scurried around like ants in a disturbed anthill. They were so focused on looking for something, they completely ignored the woman, even when she called out to them. She had never seen such chaos. They were dismantling their homes, turning up the streets, peering into dark places. When she finally managed get someone to stop and speak to her, she was told that there was a great treasure of gold hidden somewhere within the village, and whoever found it would be rich beyond imagining. Then before she could ask another question, he rushed off to continue his search.
Shaken by what she was seeing, the woman came upon the village green - a small patch of undisturbed grass with one bare-branched birch tree. As she walked over to rest under the tree, she saw the most beautiful golden glow (like the glow of a summer sunrise in our world!). When she stood under the tree, she saw that within the golden light was a carved wooden chest full of gold coins. There, right in the midst of the village, was the gold in plain sight! Yet obviously, no one had seen it. As a matter of fact, she now began to notice that people's eyes would glaze over as they looked in the direction of the green, as if they couldn't even see the tree - as if they saw nothing at all! Then they would quickly turn their gaze away and begin seriously squinting at the ground they had already gone over. The woman watched this for a while and then sighed, and silently turned to go. It was not for her to take the gold, even if she could have carried it away.
At the edge of the green she stopped, for she noticed a young man building a house. As she watched him, she saw that he had the eyes of a dreamer, and that there was some Light in him. So she went to him and brought him to the tree, and asked if he could see the chest of gold. Well, he couldn't see the chest, but he did imagine that there was a hazy golden something in the air. So he asked the woman to describe the gold to him and perhaps he could imagine what it looked like. Well, the woman did, and before very long, the young man could see the skillful workmanship of the carved chest, and the abundance and goldenness of the coins. Then the woman told him to take the gold and use it to help the villagers rebuild their homes after the madness of the search had passed. And the young man promised willingly.
When night fell, the woman was deep in the woods, near to an ash tree on a knoll. Pulling her cloak tightly around her, she lay down under the tree, planning to rest for a few hours before continuing on her way. As she slept, she dreamt that a round, luminous moon came down out of the heavens and sank into the earth beneath the tree. She got up to search for it and started digging up the earth around the tree, until she came upon a pearl-like crystal, which shed its milky light upon the tree. The light grew brighter and her heart filled with hope that she had finally found what she sought. But suddenly, the villagers were there and when they saw the light-giving crystal, they took out their pick-axes and hammers and began chipping away at the stone, until all the light disappeared and there were only shards of crystal left scattered on the ground.
The woman awoke crying.
She peered desperately into the darkness of the surrounding forest, fearful of the villagers, but there were only the animals and birds of that place, making little adjustments in their dens and nests. She looked at the knoll beneath the tree, and without thinking, began digging up the earth. Very soon she came upon the shining stone of her dream, and with an anguished cry, she stopped. She didn't want to expose the light, but it was her only clue to finding the Light. What should she do? What should she do?
She sat there, waiting . . .waiting for an answer. And before long it came. She heard a gentle voice telling her to Come In. But come in where? Why into the stone, of course! And once again without thinking, the woman stretched out her hand to the stone and suddenly felt herself slipping into its' pearly light.
Once inside the light, she immediately felt a sweet warmth such as she had known as a child when her grandmother had rocked her to sleep. In truth, she felt as if she were being held within a woman's arms, all safe and snug and listening to a lullaby about the beauty of the Light that used to shine upon the land. Then she remembered her quest. And with this memory came a voice that bade her go on, on through the luminescence in search of the source of the Light. She felt a gentle shove on her back and started walking, even though she could discern no path for her feet to follow.
Quite unexpectedly, she found herself in darkness again, but this time a very warm, almost cozy darkness. Before long, she realized that she could see what was around her, because unlike the upper world, this lower world's darkness was very alive! She could see all the flower bulbs tucked into the earth for the winter, just as snug as her own children in their beds at night. She could see the roots of the trees stretching down into the earth, just as their branches reached up to the heavens above. There were rivers and streams of pure water, flowing through crystal rocks, as well as solid rivers of gold, silver and copper veining the ledge. The stones themselves were so colourful, they rivaled our most beautiful sunsets, and there were gemstones that twinkled like the stars in heaven! She walked past all these wonders until she came to the center of the earth, and in that dark cavern, beyond a pool of azure water, she saw a glorious Light.
Gazing across the watery depths, she suddenly found herself standing before the source of that Light. There, in the heart of a shining halo, was a Child, a most wondrous and beautiful Child. And just as mothers always do, she couldn't help but smile with love at the sight of the tiny child enfolded in the Light. And the Child smiled back at the woman and she seemed to hear a Child's voice say to her, "I have waited for you so long! How glad I am you have finally come." With these words, the woman's heart grew large with love and she bent over and, picking up the Child, cradled it in her arms. She wrapped the baby inside her cloak and turning, left the cavern. She made her way back to the pearly chamber, and as she passed through it, she felt a feather-light kiss upon her brow and knew that she was loved just as surely as she loved the small baby in her arms.
She could not say for sure when she finally left the luminous light behind and emerged into the wintry night, because the pearly light and the first snowflakes blended into each other. As she hurried home with her precious burden, the snowflakes drifted down faster and faster from the night sky, and she had to go slower and slower. But a Light came from within her cloak where the Child lay next to her heart, and as she went on, the animals of the forest and the winged ones of the air saw the Light and followed after her.
She passed silently through the village, now quiet and cozy under its blanket of snow. As she passed, the young dreamer suddenly awoke in his chair next to the hearth, and with a cry of delight, joyously ran out into the snowy night. Then the children of the village awoke from their sleep and ran to the windows and saw a Light filling the night with splendour, and they called to their parents to Come out! Come out! And see the great wonder.
As the woman approached her own village, followed by a great crowd of humans and animals, she was so intent on getting home to her own children, she didn't see them and her neighbors hurrying down the road to meet her, for the Light now flew before her and filled the night.
When the woman saw her children standing there in the snowy night, she cried out with joy and stumbled through the snow to embrace them. Then, gently unclasping her cloak, she bent to show them the baby. A great glory shone from the Child, and all the creatures there that night imagined that they each sheltered the baby from the storm. Everyone felt their hearts open and they smiled, just as anyone would smile at the sight of a beautiful newborn baby, and the Child smiled contentedly back.
No one could quite remember when the Child and the Light began to fade away with the storm, except the mother who heard the silent farewell in her heart. The stars glittered brightly in the cold dark sky and the moon sent down her blessing. Feeling filled with Grace, the people felt a great peace and joy descend upon them, and the Light lived in their eyes. The animals and the birds sang out their own joy, and there was great rejoicing all around. And in the days that followed, a peace was made between humans and animals which exists to this day.
And from that night, the Light and the image of the Child lived on in their hearts, and it spread from heart to heart, until the Light was as bright as it had once been in the land. Now, all people could see and love the Light, but they did not reject the darkness either, for they had finally solved the riddle. They knew that the darkness had a beauty all its own. For it was in the darkness that the light of the stars and the moon brought to mind the Child and the Light that had come back to them on that cold and snowy winter's night.