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Waiting For Sunrise?

Waiting For Sunrise?

Where I live, sunrise today was 8:25 and sunset 15:42 — the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. For ancient people it was highly significant. Stonehenge is aligned to mark sunset on this day, Newgrange in Ireland is aligned with its sunrise. Pagan festivals worldwide occurred as the restoring sun was celebrated. Scholars believe the date of Christmas was chosen because of it (although we don’t know precisely when or by whom).

Yes, shorter days and longer nights are depressing for most of us. So even today the winter solstice remains a time for rejoicing. Daylight tomorrow will be a little longer than today, and the day after a little longer still. Our hearts are lifted and Christmas crystallises a mood of optimism. Snowdrops appear as early as January, anticipating Spring, and by March leaves and buds are well sprung as the cycle progresses. But then as the months pass we approach the summer solstice in June, the longest day of the year. We tell each other “the days will start drawing in soon”. We anticipate the daylight getting shorter. We start saying things like “it’ll be Christmas before you know it”. In fact some of us seem to live in a perpetual state of anticipation, never really arriving.

We all experience days when we wish we could freeze time, days when weather, place, companions, circumstances are perfect. We’d like to make it a groundhog day, stretched out endlessly. But of course, despite the movie, groundhog day is impossible. Even if it were possible, we should find, like Bill Murray, that we quickly tire of it. No, we can’t pick and choose moments of time, except in memory, and this can lead to a challenge, at least for me and maybe for you too.

I run four miles each morning. At least, that’s what I tell people, but the truth is, I used to. Nowadays I employ what Bayden-Powell called “Scout’s Pace”: run two hundred yards, then walk one hundred, repeated over and over for my four miles. But it gets me out, come rain, shine, cold or warm. These days my four miles takes around fifty-three minutes, under fifty on a good day. It used to take around thirty. At seventy-six my physical powers are measurably diminishing. I’ve discovered fitness is finite. Just like the waning sun my strength imperceptibly reduces. But for me there will be no winter solstice renewal, not in this life at least. I can no longer lead a Lyke Wake Walk, or climb the highest Lake District mountains. After he completed his famous seven-volume Guide to the Lake District, Alfred Wainwright wrote an eighth, lesser-known guide, for “The Outlying Fells of Lakeland”, with this lengthy subtitle: “being a Pictorial Guide to the lesser fells around the perimeter of Lakeland written primarily for old age pensioners and others who can no longer climb high fells but can still, within reason, potter about on the short and easy slopes of the foothills.”

Hah! Forty, even thirty years ago I imagined this would never happen. Fit young men feel invulnerable. If they think about ageing at all they imagine they will endure without illness, everlastingly vigorous, perhaps in later years turning into a spare, tough, muscles-like-whipcord walker with iron endurance. Sadly the reality is a little different. I’m not quite in the bracket of Wainwright’s eighth guide; I can still manage some mountains; but I can see the sunset approaching.

My morning jog is often east along a hilly country lane nearby, past a prison then five farms; glorious countryside with delightful rights of way to tempt me off my measured course. At this time of year, with the sun so low in the sky, sunrise is often spectacular. On my jog a few days ago I took a series of photos.

It’s easy to see sunrise: the first appearance of the fiery rim above the horizon. But on a cloudy morning there’s nothing to see! In any case light appears long before the sun. We call it dawn, more subtle than the dazzling display of sunrise. In the evening, dusk is a gradual thing too, and light continues long after the sun sets. It’s easy to live perpetually in the dawn, waiting for the sun to rise before getting out. Or to live in constant anxiety of sunset, and down tools even when there’s plenty of light in the sky to work by. It’s often said that anticipation of Christmas is better than the day itself, the excitement on Christmas Eve better than the real thing next morning. Some even prefer Boxing Day, when frenetic excitement has passed; a relaxing, somnolent period beckons with tempting Christmas leftovers. They look forward to getting Christmas “over and done”, for a day of chill-out “me” time. Nothing wrong with any of this. But in excess it spills over into a dissatisfied life, everlastingly looking beyond the rainbow in perpetual anticipation of a better day tomorrow. Thing is, though, we can choose to enjoy every cycle of the year. Each of the seasons has its own qualities. The story of the first Christmas teaches that waiting for a sunrise that may not be visible anyway has never been part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wainwright tells us in the introduction to volume eight: “Ardent fellwalkers never give up. They fade away, in due course, surrounded by maps, their gnarled fingers still tracing fresh routes. They die hoping for hills in heaven.” Ah, yes . . . living  a full life to the end with a joyful, proper anticipation that our Saviour’s promises of the next are real. That’s how I hope to live my life.

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