Exquisite Darkness: A Winter Solstice Liturgy

The Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the calendar year. This liturgy invites participants into a time of rest and reflection that counters the frenetic pace of the secular Christmas season.  It encourages us to experience the creative, natural cycle of light and darkness put forth to us as Christians in the Genesis creation stories.

The service begins outside in the dark, around a fire; moves inside via a path lit with luminaries; employs compost soil to demonstrate nature at rest; a small bell to indicate beginning and ends of silent reflection times; small votive candles to light; paper and pencils on which to write our own promises of rest and renewal—and marshmallows, just for fun—the Holy in the everyday!

Gathering Time Outside
To experience light, the transformative nature of exquisite darkness and to invoke images of the fire of the Easter Vigil, begin outside your sanctuary doors with a fire pit and roasting of marshmallows. The roasting of marshmallows allows participants to see a transformation happen in front of their eyes—the fire taking the marshmallow from one state to another.

Darken any lights of the path you will take. Have luminaries lit outside the church and on the path you will take into the sanctuary.

Offer these words as you gather around the fire:

Leader: For millennia, people have held festivities at this time of year to celebrate the end of the dark time and a return to the light. This reliable movement of the sun gave ancient peoples comfort as they went into the harsh winter, all the while anticipating and trusting that spring and the increase of light would emerge on schedule.

Call to Worship        
During Advent, we are called to settle into the exquisite darkness, to hibernate, rest and restore. This cycle was given to us at the time of Creation. We are invited to face the darkness in our own lives and in the world around us. The prophets assure us that the darkness with not overcome us. They call us to watch for the light, notice the Light, and be warmed by its rays. We are called to wait, to hope, to trust in promises made. As we make this Advent journey, we claim we come alive in both the light and the darkness.

Procession into the Sanctuary
With just a steady, powerful drumbeat, silently make your way into the sanctuary.
Inside the sanctuary, gather in a circle and begin singing “Prepare the Way of the Lord”. A leader takes a wheelbarrow full of compost and dumps it in the middle of the circle. Place unlit candles around the compost pile.

Scripture Genesis 1:14
At the end of the reading, people are invited to call out where they have experienced light and darkness during this season. When the sharing has finished, ring a meditation bell and sit in silence for 1-2 minutes.

Song Christ, You are Light (Taizé)
When the song comes to an end, ring a meditation bell and create a minute of silence.

Scripture Matthew 11:28-29

Invite people to enter into the Scripture passage: Imagine yourself being “yoked” to Jesus. What does that yoke look and feel like? Ring meditation bell to offer a time of reflection and silence.            
Song You are Mine

Invite people to sit with this question:
As we enter into this season of exquisite darkness, a time of hibernation for so many plants, trees, animals, what needs to settle and rest within you?

Ring the meditation bell to invite 2-3 minutes of quiet reflection.            

Invite People to consider this:
In the middle of us is a compost pile,
mound of soil that is teeming with little bugs and bacteria.
When you look at the soil, it looks static as if nothing is happening.
But those little bugs and bacteria are hard at work,
almost invisible to the human eye,
creating soil that will nourish and sustain new life
when spring comes and more light is around us.

Write down on paper on your pew what needs some tender rest in your life. What needs to hibernate, what needs to be surrounded by exquisite darkness in order to be released, ride out the winter and maybe, in the spring with more light around us, come back to you in a new way.

Place your paper in the compost soil, symbolizing that what needs rest is still yoked to Jesus, still connected to his ways during this time of rest and hibernation. You can also light a candle around the compost to signify the light that is to come.

Ring meditation bell as a sign of transition to the song.

Song God of the Sparrow

Offer a time for people to name their own prayers, and then offer this litany.

From the rising of the midwinter moon,
may darkness and light dance together, O Shining One.

In this season, make us short on grumpy thoughts,
long on sharing of words of gentleness. 

Make us short on being rushed,
long on attentiveness. 

Make us short on seeing what’s right before us,
long on peering into the horizon. 

Make us short on out-of-control to-do lists,
long on savoring kindness.

Make us short on overlooking the dark sky,
long on gazing at the twinkling stars. 

Make us short on tradition as a habit,
long on re-owning and re-creating.

Make us short on ignoring the hungry,
long on making a delicious meal. 

Make us short on rushing,
long on wondering and pondering.

Make us short on walking past those sleeping in the cold,
long on sharing blankets and hot tea. 

Make us short on longing for what’s next,
and long on savoring the darkness.

The Lord’s Prayer
If your congregation has a chant or other musical setting for the Lord’s Prayer, this would be a wonderful time to use it. Here are two possible settings which are in the public domain: http://www.hymnary.org/text/our_father_who_art_in_heaven_lords_prayer http://www.hymnary.org/text/our_father_which_art_in_heaven_chant 

Song Hymn of Promise

May the sun, moon and stars glow on you like a great fire.
May you rest and hibernate in the exquisite darkness.
May you and the whole of the planet be yoked to new life through God’s holy light and holy darkness.  

Postlude  Instrumental Reprise of Hymn of Promise 

Invite participants to stay and share in harvest-winter-based snacks and hot apple cider. 
Exquisite Darkness: Winter Solstice Service was created by Ashley Goff (UCC), Minister for Spiritual Formation, and Rob Passow, Director of Music, at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C. They created this liturgy for Church of the Pilgrims’ first winter solstice service in 2012.

Copyright 2013 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.