On the Effects of the Planet’s Axis on Religion
and a few words about the season of Advent
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)
As we move through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, the fact that Christianity is a religion begun in the northern hemisphere becomes incredibly obvious. Advent begins in the darkest days of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The days are short and getting shorter. But a few days before Christmas, the shortest day of the year happens, and everything turns around. The BBC’s Dr. Who opines that we celebrate because, “We’re halfway out of the dark.”
Indeed, Christmas comes just days after the darkness is at its greatest. Into this great darkness, a light begins to shine. And this is a light that the darkness does not understand and cannot extinguish (John 1:5). This is the Light of the World, come in the form of the babe in the manger.
With this Light shining and the earth continuing to rotate on its axis as it revolves around the sun, we citizens of the northern hemisphere move closer to our local star, and the days lengthen. This is the season after Epiphany, when we celebrate the growth of the Light. We read the stories of Jesus calling the disciples and the initial buzz regarding his ministry in Galilee.
Each year, the fact that our planet’s axis is angled ever so slightly contributes to our celebration and our story. We joke about “Christmas in July,” but if residents of the southern hemisphere wanted to experience the planet’s role in the story of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, they really should celebrate them in the summer.
The ancient peoples in the Bible did not understand the science that leads to the growth and decline of the light over the year, but they did understand the planet’s role in our collective story. Isaiah uses the image of topographical manipulation when describing preparing the way of the Lord. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” By speaking of changing the shape of the earth – raising valleys, flattening mountains – Isaiah comes at preparing the way from two angles.
First is the angle of the cosmic Creator changing the shape of creation to tell a new story. Before mountaintop removal mining was invented, only God could level mountains. So part of this imagery speaks to God’s renewing work in creation. When we prepare the way of the Lord, we expect a new thing to be on the horizon and work to welcome that new thing. That’s Advent.
Second is the angle of the practical effect of raising valleys and flattening mountains. The highways and byways of the ancient world were notoriously crime-ridden. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the world of such violence. When the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man, they are probably worried that the robbers are still about, even that the man might be playacting to lure them into a trap. The Samaritan, of course, ignores his own safety to minister to the man who had been jumped by the highwaymen.
Such banditry was possible in part because the roads went over mountains and through valleys, around rocks and rough places. By calling for the topography of the land to level out and the highways to be made straight, Isaiah removes the danger of the bandit. If the highway is straight and flat, where is the ruffian to wait in ambush? In other words, preparing the way of the Lord is about making this world a safer place to live for all people.
So participating in preparing the way of the Lord, we work towards the new things that God is doing in creation in order to make life better for all. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we celebrate this participation when we’re halfway out of the dark. And thus our participation helps to shed the Light of the World into all the dark corners of this world.