“The stones themselves will cry out.”

So said Jesus, according to the Christian Gospel of Luke, in the event that his followers were silenced. Stones do indeed speak in many ways. Gravestones tell of the lives of the dearly departed, bearing witness to their accomplishments and the esteem in which they were held.

Small stones left on these monuments tell of the visits of those who cared. Cornerstones speak of the time and purpose of the construction of great buildings. Milestones tell of progress along a roadway or in life. Cairns, piles of stones left among by hikers along the trail, tell of – and point to – the path taken and the accomplishment of those completing a trek. And standing stone monuments found in many parts of the world but particularly in England, Ireland and Scotland, speak to us in ways that remain shrouded in mystery of the circle of seasons and days and of the advent of darkness and of light.

As we move through these dark days of December many of us in the northern hemisphere look forward to the Winter Solstice, when the weak winter sun ceases its decline into the southern sky and starts to climb northward to warm and brighten our days once again. Across Anglo-Saxon and Celtic lands, over 1,000 ancient standing stone circles bear witness to this, and more. In England, perhaps the best known ancient standing stone circle at Stonehenge, hundreds gather to watch and celebrate as the sun rises on the Solstice in perfect alignment with the ancient head, heel and altar stones. At Ireland’s Newgrange, even more ancient than Stonehenge, the mysterious inner chamber is illuminated by the rising sun only on the Winter Solstice, where it lights for a scant few minutes the triple spiral carving, a design found in religious and symbolic art from Neolithic Celtic and ancient Greek and Asian cultures as well. Diana Gabeldon’s very popular “Outlander” series of novels feature a mysterious stone circle near Inverness in Scotland, whose metaphysical power is palpable and through which time travel is made possible. Having myself walked among the ancient standing stones in many Scottish locations, including the Great Glen of Kilmartin near Inverness, I am able to say that while no one has been known to be transported through time, the stones there do speak powerfully of a spiritual “thin place,” a location in which the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds is blurred and somewhat more permeable.

Celebrations of the return of the light shape so many various but similar religious and cultural festivals that one sees in the warp and woof of them a universal human longing and experience, woven with history and culture and written in the lasing nature of stones. As the standing stones attest, Pagan spiritual communities have observed and celebrated the Winter Solstice for centuries. Pagan Rome celebrated Saturnalia for 12 days at the end of December and beginning of January, a celebration that with the Christianization of the Empire, became the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” These commemorate the birth of Jesus, called “The Light of the World”; the Jewish Festival of Light in Hanukkah lifts up the light of religious freedom with the successive lighting of eight candles on eight nights; the Hindu Festival of Lights at Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil with lighted lamps and in the modern era, with electric lights, everywhere; and the lighting of the candles in the contemporary African-American celebration of light at Kwaanza celebrates traditional cultural and community values that enlighten us all. Each and all of these speak to the life-giving power of light, and its symbolism of goodness, wisdom, and life itself for all people.

When the light fades, the stones bear witness, reminding and pointing us toward the promise of light’s return. They cry out to remind us of our corporeal and spiritual need for light, as we light candles and trees and lamps and decorations of all kinds. They sing of our universal human need for light and love and the warmth of celebration, especially at this dark and cold time of the year. And they remind us of the many ways to speak of these things, across continents and millennia, as they stand to remind us of times and cultures, past and present, and to point us to a future of light and life.

“The stones themselves will cry out!” So may it be, as they point us to light and life beyond our own. And as we embrace the return of the light, each in our own way, let us remember that ours is but one of the many ways of understanding light and darkness and the journey that leads us from the one to the other.

Andrea Thompson McCall is a retired minister of the United Church of Christ who served as interfaith chaplain at the University of Southern Maine.

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