(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Sometime around 1500 BCE, ancient people living in today’s Britain finished an immense ring structure we know as Stonehenge. They built a stone Temple that operated as both a place of worship and celestial clock.
On the day we know as June 20th, these ancients gathered to watch the sun rise exactly over what is known as the Heel stone marker of Stonehenge – a rock that faces northeast. The sun’s rays then illuminated the exact center of the Stonehenge Temple. This particular day’s sunrise heralded the longest period of daylight for the year, or what we call the summer solstice.
Six months later on the date we know as December 21st, and exactly 180 degrees opposite the heel stone in the Stonehenge ring, the sun set exactly between two standing stones called the Sarsen stones. This occurrence at Stonehenge is depicted on the screen. That sunset marked the end of the shortest period of daylight for the year – or what we call the winter solstice.
Stonehenge was far more than just a 300 foot diameter ring of massive stones. Experts believe it was the spiritual center for these ancient people. It was where they worshipped and where they also kept track of eclipses, moon phases and, most importantly, annual seasons. In addition to the ring of stone Temple, wooden posts marked a much larger outer courtyard ring that was the entry area into the sacred inner Temple. A six foot deep trench extended through and then outward from Stonehenge that marked the diameter line between the summer and winter solstice stones. It was used as a massive sundial so that the people could mark the days all year long. And beyond the wooden ring structure was a burial ground surrounding the sacred place – much like people today bury their dead near places of worship. And outside the burial ground was a large village in which thousands lived.
As a Temple, Stonehenge physically marked celestial events that have taken place since the universe was born – when the big bang exploded our sun star into its present position. Drawn into the sun’s gravitational pull was the earth which then began its timeless orbit around it. Because of an elliptical orbit and pull of the sun’s gravity, the earth rotates on a slight tilt – 23.5 degrees off center. And it is that tilt that causes the earth to experience two solstice days – ones when the upper and lower hemispheres of the earth are either tilted the most away from the sun, or tilted the most toward it.
This coming Saturday, at exactly 11:19 PM, the earth’s northern hemisphere will be tilted the most away from the sun that it will ever get. Balanced against that, at the exact same moment, the southern hemisphere of the earth will be tilted the most toward the sun.
What astronomers know now is that the earth and the sun operate according to laws of physics. Ancient people, however, had no scientific understanding how the sun and earth operate in relationship to each other. In their pre-scientific minds, supernatural gods controlled the cosmos and therefore the solstice days happened because of those gods. The people believed they had to worship and express gratitude to the gods on in order to insure the sun and its vital light would return according to the precise harmony and balance they’d always observed. Without sunlight, the ancients knew that all life would perish and so they anxiously awaited solstice confirmation that increasing darkness would end, and increasing sunlight would begin.
Would the gods act as they were supposed to – or would they be angry with people and refuse to renew the balanced cycle of seasons? Such thinking led to the powerful spiritual significance given to Solstice days – particularly the Winter Solstice since it marks the darkest, and thereby perhaps the most frightening, day of the year.
I mentioned last Sunday that I’m using my message series this month to look at seasonal holidays around the world. Last Sunday we learned about and celebrated Saint Lucia Day in Sweden and its themes of light and dark. Today, I want to look at the Dongzhi Festival of China which happens this Saturday and is a holiday that celebrates the Winter Solstice. Next Sunday, we’ll consider Hanukkah as it is celebrated in Israel. And, on Christmas Eve, we’ll look at inspiring lessons from Christmas and Kwanzaa in the US.
The Dongzhi Festival is considered the second most important holiday in China – after their New Year. Translated literally, Dongzhi means “extreme of winter,” which is exactly what it honors – the shortest and often the coldest daytimes of the year. Ancient Chinese, like their contemporaries at Stonehenge, believed the Winter Solstice was a day on which to worship and give thanks. For them, the two solstice days perfectly represented their spirituality. According to the ancient philosopher Confucius, everything operates in harmony and complimentary balance. The two solstice days – each six months apart, symbolize this harmony that exists in all things. All of the universe operates in a kind of gentle coexistence. Dark and cold, for instance, blends into light and warmth in an unending harmonious cycle.
This philosophy is what the Chinese call Yin and Yang harmony. Opposites, like summer and winter solstices, operate not in competition, but rather in a synchronized coexistence. Life is a continual interplay between opposites – between up and down, in and out, male and female, joy and sadness, peace and war, life and death, Yin and Yang. In that regard, the Dongzhi Festival is a celebration of Chinese beliefs – how harmony, balance, coexistence, and cooperation are the essential ethics by which people should live.
For the Chinese, Yin and Yang opposites define each other. For example, dark defines light. We cannot understand light unless we also understand its absence. That is the same between love and hate, male and female, conflict and peace. An old Chinese saying states: “When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created. When people see things as good, evil is created. Being and non-being produce each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short define each other. High and low oppose each other. Fore and aft follow each other.”
What this means is that the Chinese believe nothing is absolute. Nothing is totally good or bad, dark or light, up or down. There is blending and a mix of both. Everything is interdependent such that opposites need the other in order to be understood. As one thing increases, the other decreases. That continuous flowing does not end, but rather cycles back again. This, the Chinese believe, is how the natural world functions and it is best exemplified by the June and December Solstices.
And such harmony in the universe is an example for the Chinese – and us – for how to live. Work diligently but take time to rest. Eat hearty but also fast and don’t eat in excess. Accept challenges and difficulties as parts of life, but also try to learn and find good from them. Be yourself if you are a man and express masculinity, but do not stifle the parts of you that are feminine. In warmth, appreciate cold. In death and dying, celebrate life. In the totality of all experiences, be harmoniously balanced because that is how the universe operates. We are to be centered, flexible and aware that life is lived in the so-called grey zone – nothing is perfectly good, right, or just. Like the universe, things exist in harmony or Yin and Yang. They are about finding peace and contentment in a complex universe of opposites.
Such harmony is understood pictorially by the Yin and Yang circular symbol – which you can now see on the screen. The white portion of the image circle flows and eventually blends into the black. We also see a black dot in the middle of the white area – just as there is a white dot in the middle of the black. For the Chinese, this exemplifies how life and the universe function. Applied to the two solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year merge into the other. They are not opposed to one another, but rather supportive and part of the other. Yin and Yank call us to be the same – in blended coexistence with one another.
Instead of advocating extremes of opinion that often oppose other extreme opinions, according to Confucian thought we are to yield to one another’s thoughts and assimilate them into our own. In other words, don’t compete, but understand and cooperate. Find ways to live in a way that allows you to be a part of other lives and all of nature – just as they are a part of you.
The Chinese Dongzhi Festival is therefore a festival founded on the Yin and Yang philosophy. Nothing in nature better represents harmony than the balance of summer and winter, light and dark, warm and cold. For the Dongzhi Festival, people celebrate its ideals by putting on new clothing, leaving work earlier than normal, giving gifts to family, and then festively eating and drinking into the long night.
In southern China, people celebrate Dongzhi by eating a symbolic food consisting of sweet white rice balls filled with salty sesame paste – representing the Yin of spice blended into the Yang of sweet. In Beijing and northern China, people eat dumplings or flour shells filled with seasoned meat and boiled in broth. Tradition has it that a doctor working during the Han Dynasty around 200 BCE prescribed dumplings to help fight the chill of winter that often hurts people’s exposed ears. Chinese dumplings were therefore shaped like ears – and still are – to symbolize acceptance of cold and hardship.
The lesson from China’s Dongzhi celebration, for me, is to accept the Yins and Yangs of life with calm. When we find ourselves in disharmony, we need to gently but purposefully restore balance. Too much of even good things is ultimately harmful and so we must be thankful for bad times all so we can know and understand happiness.
That’s a primary reason cultures all over the world have historically celebrated the Winter Solstice – a day when people could, if they were pessimistic, mourn the darkness. In ancient times, huge feasts were held because farmers usually slaughtered and cooked most of their livestock knowing they could not grow enough animal feed in the coming winter. That would seem a risky and scary thing to do but, at Stonehenge, experts believe the Winter Solstice was a day of worship and of celebration – both fearing and praying against the dark, while celebrating and thanking the gods for their blessings. If we think about, we ought to do the same.
In China, the day is a time to be reminded of nature’s balanced intricacy. The universe does not act chaotically, but instead offers assurance and regularity. Winter, especially in ancient times, was difficult but it also heralded the goodness of Spring and Summer. Death in winter and in life is not an end, but a beginning. It is this continual cycle of dying and birthing that should bring comfort to everyone – and a model for life. Be centered. Be at peace. Cooperate. Coexist. Embrace opposites by not choosing either extreme.
This Chinese or eastern spirituality is very different from western spirituality. For many in the west, there exists absolute good or evil and that has led many to often see other people or things in extremes. Someone is either saint or sinner. An idea is either just or it’s immoral. What that can cause is a failure to empathize and understand the complexity of people and of viewpoints. It seems that people the world over need to better reflect on life being a mix of good and bad, just and unjust, beautiful and homely, male and female, light and dark, conservative and liberal, theist and atheist. Much like the Winter and Summer Solstices are not total opposites, but rather blend into the other, I encourage thought about Yin and Yang philosophy and how we are called to live in harmony, balance, peace, and cooperation with everything.
I wish you each, this coming Saturday at 11:19 PM, a happy and harmonious Winter Solstice moment, and a joyful Dongzhi Festival day.