Burst of light: did friars build churches to honor the solstice?

Burst of light: did friars build churches to honor the solstice? December 22, 2011

Though some people scoff, one researcher thinks it’s possible.  He contends that some California Catholic missions may have been designed as tools to help convert Native Americans:

On the darkest day of the year, a hushed crowd in a dim church awaited a few minutes of sheer brilliance.

It was just after dawn Wednesday, the day of the winter solstice. Outside the 200-year-old mission at the heart of tiny San Juan Bautista, Native American drummers sang, urging the sun to rise. Inside, dozens of parishioners rubbed the sleep from their eyes. A woman stood up and sang in cadences haunting and solemn — phrases in no known tongue, she said, but “the language of the heart.”

They were gathered for what has come to be known as an “illumination,” a brief, breathtaking interval when a sunbeam penetrates the church’s front window to bathe the altar and the sacred objects around it in a blazing patch of light. The mission perched at the edge of the San Andreas fault sees it but once a year.

As roosters crowed, a luminous rectangle appeared on the wall just to the left of the altar. Turning gold and then fiery, it slowly moved over the altar. At that moment, someone threw open the church’s great double doors and a river of light shot down the 188-foot-long main aisle. One by one, parishioners were led to the altar for their moment in the sun.

It was a spectacular moment — but what it means is an open question. Some researchers say the illuminations at San Juan Bautista and other missions are nothing more than great special effects.

But for Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist who teaches at Cal State Monterey Bay, they’re more significant. According to Mendoza, Franciscan architects carefully engineered the luminous event for the sun-worshiping local Indians they sought to convert.

“For many Native American groups,” he said, “the solstice was the most dreaded day of the year. They believed the sun was dying and only its rebirth could ensure their survival.”

Mendoza has been researching illuminations for years. He saw his first one 11 years ago, and it moved him deeply. At the time, he was both a worshiper at San Juan Bautista and a researcher supervising an archaeological dig on the mission’s grounds.

In 1997, the mission’s priest spotted an illumination while opening the church for a small group of post-dawn pilgrims. After that, he held a number of solstice observances, hoping the Central Coast’s morning fog wouldn’t seal out the sun.

Both as a Catholic and as a scientist, Mendoza was eager to see it.

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9 responses to “Burst of light: did friars build churches to honor the solstice?”

  1. It sounds like the original builders were very smart do build the way they did. Evangelization requires speaking to people where they are, and the original friars did just that!

  2. The entire Christmas holiday was stolen from/overlaid onto, the ancient solstice celebrations. Christianity takes it own meaning in the Nativity, which is all well and good, but it has no plausible connection whatsoever to Dec. 25 except as a marketing tool to early converts who already marked the time as a birth/rebirth of hope.

  3. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Prof. Mendoza is correct. One of the books by historian John L. Heilbron, “The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories”, is all about the use of cathedrals in the Renaissance to gather astronomical data. Use of navigational and astronomical instruments to build an architecture of apologia is both possible and creative!

  4. I think “marketing tool” is completely unfair as a characterization. The Church put Christmas on the solstice quite deliberately. (The solstice was on Dec 25 until weaknesses in the julian calendar caused it to drift off. Subsequently the gregorian calendar fixes put the solstice 3-5 days before Christmas.) The Church has always used art, music, architecture, nature, etc. to communicate profound truths. That Jesus’s coming to earth as a human being represents the triumph of light over darkness is a great truth of our faith, not some awkwardly borrowed-from-paganism piety.

  5. “It turns out that the fixing of Christmas Day on December 25 is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on the widespread modern belief that the date was picked in order to displace the celebration of a pagan festival on that date. Rather, the date of Jesus’ birth was determined by reference to Jesus’ conception which, in turn, was calculated by determining His crucifixion and death.”…

    “Well, that date was fixed in ancient tradition and it is based upon a widespread belief in Judaism at the time of Christ that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. By the time of Tertullian, scholars researching the various dates of Passover had concluded that Jesus died on the Cross on March 25. Wrote St. Augustine,

    ‘He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since.’ (On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5).”

    More here: http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com/2011/12/why-christmas-is-celebrated-on-december.html

  6. I was at the event this year it was awesome. The holly spirit always finds a way to reach everyone were there at. Ometeo or Jesus it’s the same god. Among the smell of sage burning and native songs it was a spiritually charged way to praise god.

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