Solstice, Galileo and Obelisk

Reflections on forthcoming Mass readings by Tom and April Hoopes.

Sunday, Dec. 20 is the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C, Cycle II). Friday, Dec. 25 is Christmas Day, a holy day of obligation.


Dec. 24, 10 p.m., Pope Benedict XVI celebrates midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Dec. 25, noon, Pope Benedict gives his blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city of Rome and the world) from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica.


Last year, Pope Benedict XVI noted some fascinating facts about the winter solstice (Dec. 21).

“The Christmas festivity is placed within and linked to the winter solstice, when, in the northern hemisphere, the days begin once again to lengthen.

“In this regard, perhaps not everyone knows that in St. Peter’s Square there is also a meridian; in fact, the great obelisk casts its shadow in a line that runs along the paving stones toward the fountain beneath this window, and in these days, the shadow is at its longest of the year.

“This reminds us of the role of astronomy in setting the times of prayer. The Angelus, for example, is recited in the morning, at noon and in the evening, and clocks were regulated by the meridian, which in ancient times made it possible to know the ‘exact midday.’

He noted that 2009 is the World Year of Astronomy, established on the fourth centenary of Galileo’s first observations by telescope.

He said that some of his predecessors “studied this science, such as Sylvester II, who taught it, Gregory XIII, to whom we owe our calendar, and St. Pius X, who knew how to build sundials.”


Remember the Hoopes’ advice: Forget all the other Christmas specials from your childhood, and if you must watch something, watch the two anticommercialization classics: “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (1966) and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965).


Micah 5:1-4; Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Our Take

In the first reading, the prophet Micah sees how blessed Bethlehem is, despite being an unlikely town for the savior to be born. In the Gospel reading, Elizabeth sees how blessed Mary is, despite being an unlikely home to the incarnate God. Don’t think your family is an unlikely family to make a major impact on the world.

Today’s Mass explains why all of these low expectations are about to be shattered.

Christ himself is always catching us lowering our expectations and then shattering them. He came to a humble place and in a humble way. But it is precisely this quiet way that wins us to him.

Today’s readings tell us exactly how to make Christmas make a difference.

1. Make Christ present to your family.

“Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” says the Psalm. Simply by being with us, by tending to his vine himself, he changes us. We know the difference between reading a textbook and meeting with a tutor, the difference between a letter and a visit. Christ coming directly to tend to his vine changes the whole dynamic between God and man. Spend time with him in prayer as a family to be transformed.

2. Learn God’s will.

In the second reading, Paul applies to Christ the words “Behold, I come to do your will, O God.” Paul explains, “By this ‘will,’ we have been consecrated.” Christ reveals the path to our happiness in the will of the Father. Be sure your family knows his will through the three sources that give it: the Church (read the Catechism), Scripture (study the Gospels) and through the events of your life (talk to them about what’s happening and what it means).

3. Do God’s will.

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,” Elizabeth says to Mary. Is there some practice that you and your family know you ought to do, and wish you could get around to doing? Mass during the week? The daily Rosary? Do it, and stick to it! The rewards will be enormous.

The first reading predicts just how great the rewards will one day be, if enough of us get on board: “His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.”

Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas.