There seems to be a slowness in the land, a moment for us to catch our breath, a time of waiting. It is the season for hopeful repose, and it is sometimes difficult to define just why.

The big events seem just ahead. Jimmy Carter prepares for his important overseas trip. Congress puts off an energy bill. Cairo readies itself for Sadat's special summit, and Egyptian hotel workers learn how to keep a kosher kitchen.

Christmas shopping has been slow enough that merchants have offered sales as inducements to get people inside. For months people of middle-income means and beyond have been deluged with holiday catalogues offering all manner of consumer goodies. The material richness of America has been flaunted in advertising. A cornucopia.

Frankly, what we seem to be waiting for hardly reflects our better impulses. The commercialism and secularism of mad shopping and acquisition will win us few medals in history. Actually, on another, deeper level, we are waiting with the ancients for something far more important than Bionic Man or Woman toys, video-cassette recorders or baskets of cheese delights.

Each year around Dec. 22, we in the Northern Hemisphere experience the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The sun seems to stand still, almost in awe for several days; its noontime elevation appears not to change.

Long before the birth of Christ, ancient cultures rejoiced during the winter solstice because the heavens provided an affirmation that the sun would continue, even though it had reached its lowest point in the sky.

Though the feast of Epiphany - celebrating the baptism of Jesus, the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem and the Cana miracle - outranks Christmas in Christianity, Christmas eventually became the more popular holiday. Its observance dates no earlier than A.D. 200, history tells us, and it was A.D. 400 before Christmas had spread across the Christian world. No question that the church of that early Christian ear was happy to allow the widespread, ancient celebration of winter solstice to coincide with the growing observation of Christmas.

No matter how modern and technological we become in today's world, we cannot prevent the darkness outside during this time of year. We can cope with it with brilliant incandescent display, piercing headlights and powerful vapor street lights. But the Northern Hemisphere is still dark, and this darkness would contaminate the soul were it not for the deep understanding that there would be light again, and also for the whirl we all fall into during the holidays.

So we leave the dark outside and go inside to the light and warmth of homes and fireplaces. We join with family and friends inside to celebrate the light and occupy ourselves in orgies of gift exchanges and consumption of food and drink.

Our daily lives quicken as Christmas approaches. There's anger, bad driving, rudeness between customer and clerk, perspiring bodies under warm coats, headaches, drunkenness, sadness, joy and even suicides. Some souls despair that the light will never come again.

Those people are lucky who can reflect on all this, stand back and realize the centuries have told this story over and over. The centuries ahead will do the same. This is the season of darkness, reaffirmation and then light.