We refer to the darkest time of the year, paradoxically, as the season of light. In the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and in the many traditions that enrich December and January, especially in the North, the emergence of light serves as a metaphor for hope and joy, a focal point for our festivities. In the form of a newborn babe sent to bring the light of salvation, to the miracle of the long-lighted-lamp experienced by the war-torn Jews of ancient Palestine that is celebrated at Chanukah, from the Christmas tree bedecked with twinkling lights, to the Advent candle burning at Mass, and to Yule logs burning as well, light is the harbinger of peace, of a peaceful celebration. Early in December, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and in early January, Christians celebrate Epiphany, known as the Day of Light, when the Magi visit Jesus. Light is revelation.
It is not just a coincidence that all of these holidays converge in the space of a month. In the eons before electricity, the darkness on earth must have been profound. Nighttime brought fear into the hearts of mankind, and so much more so during the long months of darkness and cold. If the miracles of birth and rebirth I listed above had not happened, surely human culture would have found other ways, other reasons, to turn the season into an occasion for joy, if only to dispel the encroaching long night of Winter.
We don’t light just one candle this time of the year but rather we light 4 or 8, a whole tree or room full. We light fires. We light the light within. And as we kindle these many lights, we remember. We remember miracles. In remembering the miracles of the ages, we allow ourselves to step away from our primordial fears and to turn to the relationships often left fallow in the hardworking days of the year. We look back and bring our lost loved-ones home, in our hearts, just as surely as we make room for another guest at the festive table. We seek to make sure the hungry are fed, that all are sheltered and warm.
All of these acts are really ways of expressing compassion, which is the essential meaning of light as a metaphor. As we treasure our own ways of celebrating, we can all bring a measure of light into the world by spending a moment, if only a moment, in reflection on the meaning of the season, on the meaning of light in a darkened world. It is not a season for callousness. It is not season for cynicism. It is a season when the sacred envelops our hearts. Along with the ancient tales, we revisit the more recent stories of Scrooge and the Grinch, which are so powerful because they tell of the transformation of the heart, from the coldness of greed, to the circle of community: they help us understand that the mystery of creation continues, not in the verdant seasons of growth outside, but in the equally powerful season of growth in our hearts.
As we bring the mystery of the season home, now is the time to remember that the season of light is not so much a mystery, but an opportunity. It is not so much a time of remembering miracles, but a time of remembering how to live. Faith, enlightenment, regeneration are only as good as the process that they put in motion. They are only so strong as the light (and compassion) that they bear. In this season, I pray that your light burns brightly and that your celebration is truly warm and merry. JL