If we know someone is coming, we wait for them. After a while, waiting becomes longing. Now, as we approach the darkest day of the year, we long for the return of light. Now, as we see that “darkness covers the land and deep gloom enshrouds the peoples” (as Isaiah put it), we long for the return of light.
We’ve been celebrating the return of light for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has ways of celebrating the Winter Solstice, the day when the hours of sunlight, having become less and less, begin to increase again.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” [BCP p. 70] For most of human existence the “perils and dangers” of the night have not been metaphorical or poetic or emotional. The night, the darkness, was a time of actual physical danger—danger from predatory animals, danger from unseen enemies, danger from simply not being able to see things. Darkness could mean death, actual loss of life. And, so, light has become the giver of life. In celebrating light, we celebrate life.
A few weeks ago I watched a fascinating program on television about the crocodile god of ancient Egypt. The fishermen and farmers along the Nile lived in constant fear of being eaten by enormous and hungry crocodiles. And so temples were built and homage paid to the crocodile god. They made offerings to persuade the god to eat fish instead of fishermen.
That’s the basic idea of temple in the ancient world: a place to appease a god, a place to influence the actions of a god. Although it’s a big theological shift to the temple in ancient Jerusalem, the idea is pretty much the same. Animal sacrifices were made by the thousands year after year to worship the one true God, to influence his decisions, to flatter him with praise and thanksgiving, and to appease his anger at the misbehavior of human beings.