For those in the Northern hemisphere lucky enough to have an unimpeded view of the western horizon just after sunset on December 21, there will appear in the heavens if not a great sign at least a beacon of hope. For the first time in almost 400 years the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn will appear to coincide, or nearly so, producing a near alignment as Jupiter, the Great Benefic of the Ancients, the “Bringer of Jollity,” eclipses for a time the Greater Malefic, Saturn, the Bringer of Misfortune.
The Great Conjunction coincides with the Winter Solstice, also on December 21, when the increasing darkness of our days halts and begins to retreat. Appearing just days before Christmas, the alignment will resemble a new and brilliant star, bringing to mind the story of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-10). This relatively rare celestial configuration was probably not the Star of Bethlehem, although in 1604 Johannes Kepler calculated that there had been such a conjunction in 7 BCE. But it was not a particularly noticeable one. At least no one did, except perhaps the Magi. Still, this week’s conjunction and solstice appear as a welcome ray of hope in very dark times.
Today’s readings turn our reflections from John the Baptist to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whose faith and trust in God were of such great importance and significance in the saga of redemption. But first, we are given the account of David’s plan to build a Temple for God in his newly captured stronghold of Jerusalem. Rebuffed by the prophet Nathan, who first had approved the idea, David is told that a successor would build the great house of God. And it was in fact Solomon, David son, who built the great temple that for centuries was one of the wonders of the ancient world. But, as St. Bernard related in his homily “In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the true temple would be this young girl of Nazareth, who for nine months bore within her the Savior of the World, the very Son of God.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a link between the two temples, “the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets, and at the command of the eternal God, made known to all the Gentiles that they may believe and obey…” (Rom 16:25-26). Those barred from so much as entering the temple were now to be welcomed. While temple imagery is found throughout Christian scripture, the allusion that inspired St. Bernard is perhaps the most beautiful of all.
The gospel reading is taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, our sole source for the story of the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the young Mary, engaged to Joseph but not yet married. The nearly rabbinical dialogue between them sets the stage for the great mystery of Christmas, the Virgin Birth – scripture’s way of affirming that Jesus is the true Son of God, although he will somewhat ironically refer to himself as “the Son of Man,” an allusion to the “eschatological figure” in whom rests the destiny of the world.
The great feast of Christmas lies just ahead, a moment of brightness in what has been far too dark a year in a world still longing for redemption. We were reminded by Isaiah that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone” (Isaiah (9:2).
We live in hope for a better future, one ultimately in the New Heavens and New Earth, where “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-5) There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, or need for one, for “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).
Christmas is a season of hope, more, possibly, than one of joy. “The Crib of Jesus lies always in the shadow of the Cross. The silence and poverty of the birth in Bethlehem are one with the darkness and pain of the death on Calvary. The Crib and the Cross are the same mystery of redemptive love; the body which Mary laid in the manger is the same body offered up on the Cross (Homily of Pope John Paul II, Manger Square, Bethlehem, 22 March 2000. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/travels/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000322_bethlehem.html ). But the darkness shall not prevail. We live in hope.
In his lovely long poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Peguy, the great French poet and playwright, described the virtue of hope that we so desperately need this year as a small child,
…it is my little hope
who lies down every evening
and gets up every morning
and really has very good nights.
I am, God says, the Lord of that virtue.
It is my little hope
who goes to sleep every evening,
in her child’s bed,
after having said a good prayer,
and who wakes every morning and gets up
and says her prayers with new attention.
Hope is a little girl, nothing at all….
And yet it is this little girl who will endure worlds.
This little girl, nothing at all.
She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.
As the star guided the three kings from the deepest Orient.
Toward the cradle of my Son.
Like a trembling flame.
She alone will guide the Virtues and Worlds.
May the child hope and the child Jesus comfort you in these difficult times and bring you a hope-filled and joyful Christmas.