On December 21, the shortest day of the year, we will be limited to nine hours of daylight. The deepening darkness is depressing. The lack of light presses on the soul; for some, it leads to SAD – seasonal affective disorder. (The circumstances will be reversed six months from now at the summer solstice, when we will daily be bathed in sixteen hours of daylight). Shorter days coincide with falling temperatures, more insulation and isolation; not to mention the unrelenting darkness that blankets so much of the world – migrants, hostages, war, homelessness, toxic polarization, gun violence, drug overdoses, and on and on – all of which leaves so many feeling helpless and hopeless. Seeming endless darkness.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors in the northern hemisphere discovered that the winter solstice represented a pivot point: the days began to get longer; the sun was experiencing an annual rebirth. They celebrated this transition with bonfires and festivals. They brought evergreens into their homes to remind them that the earth was not dying. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the church decided that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25, in part to supplant the pagan solstice festival, but also to provide hope – and spiritual light, in the deepening darkness.
One of my favorite scripture passages comes from the prologue of John’s Gospel, which is often read at Christmas services; “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Light offers hope; the tiniest amount of light disables darkness. The original Christmas story of a baby born in the back reaches of a barn to a poor unwed mother brings a ray of light into the world. Not much light, but it caught the attention of some shepherds – and eventually some wealthy traders from foreign lands. The new light raised the hackles of King Herod, who had heard that another king was arriving in his kingdom, creating a potential competitor for peoples’ allegiance; and his response was to have all the newly born boys in his realm executed. Mary and Joseph were warned of Herod’s vengeance, and they become refugees in Egypt. Jesus was saved. Darkness could not destroy the light.
There has long been a temptation at Christmas to flood the darkness with gaudy displays of light and raucous noise – which are, to be sure, expressions of gratitude for the light of hope and peace, but at the same time are often attempts to deny darkness. Instead of trying to be engineers of light, I think the invitation from the Christmas story– for people of the Christian faith, of another faith, or no faith, is for us to be detectives for light. To hunt for the light in one another; to identify the presence of that light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9); and do all that we can to support it.
In some ways this is getting harder to do, because there is a growing number of forces and voices that make the claim that certain people are darkness magnets. Not just because of their race or religion (which are long standing tropes), but because of their values and/or political persuasion. Instead of finding light in one another, these same forces and voices want us to see certain categories of adversaries as agents of darkness. And that we should distance, disown or act like Herod and try and destroy them.
Light disturbs and disables darkness. We are challenged to be apostles of light. To see and celebrate the light in others. That said, I have found that there are at least two instances when it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the light in someone else. The first is when someone is consumed with grief. Those who suffer intense loss are often blinded by overwhelming darkness. In those situations, we sit with, pray with, be silent with, the grief stricken. We hold them in our light, trusting in the promise that their light will eventually emerge from the veil of sadness, and we all will be able to see the light again, burning with perhaps a different candlepower than before.
The other instance is rage. Rage is different than anger. Anger can help us see instances of wrongdoing, and can help guide us into a process of restitution, reparation or reconciliation. Rage renders us blind. It is a different sort of darkness. Rage leaves people laser focused on destruction and vengeance. In rage, we live with the misguided conviction that we should destroy anyone who gets in our way. Much of what is fueling the war in Gaza is a focused rage from some influential leaders, on both sides, whose thirst for violence, compounded by a grinding self-righteousness, has created a metastatic darkness. The effect of that burning rage continues to cost lives, and has caused religious authorities to cancel Christmas services in Bethlehem.
Rage can be intoxicating. It fills one with impregnable righteousness. When faced with rage, which has become policy in some arenas of the world, and even in our own country, instead of sitting with it as we do with people paralyzed by grief, we need to stand against rage. To stand with courage and hope. Fortified by light, which – in the fullness of time, will not permit the darkness to overtake it.
Seek out the light. It shines in the darkness. May that light help us bear witness to hope and peace — in ourselves, in others, and in the world.