As the wheel of the year turns, we turn towards its longest day, its midday, midsummer, when our nearest star, our life-giving sun, holds us in his longest embrace.
In an age of central heating, ready meals, all-night electric light, fire at the flick of a switch, it may be hard to appreciate how important the sun was to our ancestors – and easy to forget how vital his warmth and light still are to us today. We are children of the sun and earth and, like babies, still rely on our cosmic parents for our survival. Despite all our modern conveniences, if the sun’s light were to go out tomorrow, we would die. Having said that, however, astronomers calculate the sun will still be able to support life here for another billion or so years.
So no need to panic just yet.
In fact, there is only life (as science currently defines it) on earth because our planet’s orbit is in what is known as the Goldilocks zone – neither too cold, nor too hot. The sun accounts for 99.9pc of the mass of the solar system. Its light, which takes about eight minutes to reach the earth (so we see the sun not as it is now, but as it was eight minutes ago), supports almost all life here by photosynthesis. There can be no doubting the importance to us of this giant living ball of gases at the heart of the solar system.
The summer solstice here in the northern hemisphere – when the earth’s tilt leans the North Pole closest to the sun – is on June 21 this year (00.09 BST, to be precise, so the longest day is June 20). Solstice comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because it is when the sun seems to pause, at his highest point on Thursday, before the days start to shorten again towards the winter solstice.
Archaeological evidence worldwide suggests that the solstices have been important to humans for millennia – many ancient religious structures are aligned with the sun’s rising or setting on the longest and/or shortest days. And, given the sun’s importance, it is no wonder. The most famous in Britain is, of course, Stonehenge – which also conjures up images of white-robed Druids celebrating as the solstice sun peeks over the horizon. Stonehenge dates back way before our Druidic forebears came to these shores, but the site has become associated in the popular imagination with these early British scientists, poets, healers, astronomers, naturalists, historians, counsellors and philosophers. (Incidentally, Winston Churchill was installed into the Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids in 1908. And Princess Elizabeth – now Queen – joined Druids in 1946 to be accepted into the Gorsedd of Bards, as did Dr Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2002.)
The summer solstice is one of eight festivals, eight points in time, throughout the year when we are encouraged to set aside time from our busy-ness to re-establish our relationship with the natural and cosmic rhythm of life. It is a life-affirming time of joy and celebration, when the sun washes the earth with healing and revitalising light.
In the human life cycle, it represents the height of early adulthood as we seek to shine as brightly as we can in our life’s endeavours, when we test what we’ve learned at school in the wider world – the young hero or heroine testing their mettle, and their capacity to love and grow, in order to know themselves as they continue on life’s adventure.
Indeed, we face testing times throughout life. The summer solstice, however, offers us an opportunity to appreciate and give thanks for the gifts we have and encourages us to reflect on how we can better use them to benefit the world.
As the heart of the solar system beams out across the far reaches of space, so this is a reminder to love all aspects of ourselves that orbit our inner sun, and beam love, hope and encouragement out from our hearts into the far-reaching space we call life.