“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ” (Gospel of John)
“The lamps are different, but the Light is the same. ” (Rumi)
“Only in the darkness can you see the stars. ” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here in the northern hemisphere, December plunges us into deepening darkness as the days grow shorter, culminating in the longest night of the year on December 21st. And for that reason, several major religions choose this time of year for celebrations of light.
For example, Pagans celebrate Winter Solstice as a sign of the return of the sun, since after the longest night on December 22, the sun begins its long journey back to us after a long, cold, dark winter.
Also near this time of year Hindus celebrate Diwali, colloquially known as the “festival of lights" because a common practice is to place small oil lamps around the home and yard. The lights are meant to help the goddess Lakshmi find her way into the homes of the faithful to bestow prosperity. Diwali also commemorates Rama's coronation, as the lamps are a welcome for the returning king.
Jews celebrate Hanukkah during the December darkness, another religious “festival of lights” commemorating the rededication of the Temple in 165 BCE after it had been desecrated by the Syrian King. After the Jews returned to Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, they held a service of rededication – but there was only enough oil in the lamp to last one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, long enough for them to replenish their supply.
Kwanzaa celebrations, though not religious, are a growing tradition among African Americans. Kwanzaa centers on the Nguzo Saba, seven principles of black culture developed in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Pan-African studies and black cultural leader in the United States. These principles are unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each evening, families and communities light one of the seven candles in a kinara and discuss the day's principle.
Likewise, it is in the gathering winter darkness that Christians celebrate Advent and Christmas, anticipating for four weeks the hope, peace, joy and love of Christ whose birth is celebrated on December 25th. Advent wreaths have one candle for each theme, and a central candle symbolizing God’s light coming into the world. For his compassion, wisdom and courage, Jesus came to be known as “light of the world. ”
Images of light and darkness for the spiritual journey are profound. Expressions such as “a light at the end of the tunnel” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn” attest to the common experience that sometimes, when challenging situations become most threatening, we find hope in the possibility of a better future that only begins to reveal itself in small and subtle ways.
Reflecting on my own tradition as a Christian, it is amazing to me that the hopeful light of Christmas is associated with a baby born to parents in vulnerable circumstances. The gospel writers depict Christ’s homeless, peasant class birth into a world governed by elite and brutal politics. For some of us this concept may seem foreign, but in parts of our world, poverty, oppression and injustice still darken the circumstances of many.
So while it may seem counterintuitive to look for hope in the presence of an infant and his disposed family, each year I begin to understand the connection a bit more. The possibility of peace, the hope for justice, the experiences of joy and love can be realized only through compassion. Nurturing our concern for the well being of others, particularly for those who are not in a position to care for themselves, is the only way that human society will overcome the realities of fear, violence and greed that have so long dominated our existence. Thus, it is in creating room within the inn of our hearts for the vulnerable creatures of this world that light enters our darkness; room for the homeless and undereducated, for the refugee, for the uninsured, for other creatures, and for the environment.
In the midst of this dark winter month, my hope is that whatever our faith experience, we might all experience the presence of a sacred light calling forth the best of what makes us all sisters and brothers in the human family.
Susan Ryder regularly engages in Interfaith dialogue, and is an author on a site for Creative Writing (http://www.Writing.Com/ ). Check out her other work at (http://www.sophie.Writing.Com/ ).