The following comes from a December 1 Chicago Tribune article by Jay Jones:
On the winter solstice, as the sun rises in the dip between two hills, the amazing accomplishment of some 18th-century priests becomes crystal clear. Through an open window at Mission San Juan Bautista, a brilliant beam of light enters, bathing the altar in gold before traveling directly up the center aisle, gilding the 200-year-old, rust-colored tiles.
Each Dec. 21, on the shortest day of the year, people from near and far converge on this small town 90 miles southeast of San Francisco to witness what’s come to be known as “the illumination.” For some of those who pack the pews, the experience is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
“It’s very moving, actually,” said Brian Steeger, a local who has attended several of the ecumenical, solstice services.
Completed in 1797, the church, named after St. John the Baptist, is the 15th of the 21 missions that brought Christianity to the West Coast. They stretch across more than 500 miles, from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north.
Despite calamities from pirate raids to earthquakes — for example, the infamous San Andreas Fault lies directly beside San Juan Bautista — most of the missions continue to function as places of worship. Their beauty, tranquillity and histories make them ideal places to witness the wonders of the season — from concerts by candlelight to live nativity scenes that recall the birth of Jesus.
Thirty miles up the coast in chic Santa Barbara, December visitors to Old Mission Santa Barbara (www.santabarbaramission.org) find large wreaths and trees beside the front door.
Founded 230 years ago this month, the “Queen of the Missions” — so called because of its impressive, regal setting atop a hill — remains home to a community of Franciscan friars. The current church was dedicated in 1820 after the previous adobe building was crumbled by an earthquake.
The faithful are invited to gather outside the majestic mission at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 for an evening of Christmas carols. Toward the close, “Silent Night” is sung as participants walk to a creche erected earlier in the day on the mission’s spacious lawn.
The first of the missions, San Diego de Alcala, was founded in July 1769, by Father Junipero Serra. According to a historical marker, the Spanish priest “planted civilization in California.”
“Here he first raised the cross,” a brass plaque reads. “Here (he) founded the first town, San Diego.” Serra was made a saint last year.
For 40 years on the Saturday and Sunday before Christmas, it has been standing room only for the mission’s Candlelight Musical Meditation.
Guests step aside as members of the Mission Choir file into the darkened church, singing joyously as they proceed past the pews.
The parish priest offers his greeting to those assembled as the choristers climb the stairs to their loft. They’re joined by musicians with their instruments: bassoons, clarinets, drums, flutes, trumpets, violins and more.
Familiar carols such as “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World” are performed, along with lesser-known songs of the season. The music is interspersed with readings from Scripture. Following the service, guests file into the church hall for holiday refreshments.
At the solstice celebration up in San Juan Bautista, there’s a regular among those who gather each Dec. 21. Professor Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist from California State University at Monterey Bay, continues to cast a scientific eye on the mystical illumination, a phenomenon he has researched at some other missions as well.
Mendoza said the Spanish priests who designed the churches were far more than preachers of the Gospel. He said they had to have had a remarkable knowledge of both architecture and astronomy to precisely position the buildings to capture the sun.
“In my experience studying the solar geometry of these churches, there are dimensions of this that have to be more than coincidental,” he said.
“I try to retain my identity as a scientist in each and every case, but it challenges that identity,” he added. “To watch the light pulsating … one could argue it is a form of divine plan.”