More Dark, Less Light

Hanukkah party Mishkan Torah 2015
Hanukkah party at Mishkan Torah, Greenbelt MD, 2015. Author photo

We celebrated Hanukkah these past days, including a party offered by the religious school at Congregation Mishkan Torah last evening (the final night of this eight-day feast). I say we celebrated it for past days, but not eight because I could not find our menorah until time to light the third candle at home!

Christmas tree
heart.co.uk

In ten days, we will fly to Michigan to celebrate Christmas with our extended family. In between, we will observe the winter solstice on December 22. Muslims will observe Mawlid, the birth of the prophet Mohammed on December 23 to 28 (depending on the branch of Islam). Then there is Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and of course New Year’s Day.

This is a time of year marked by celebration.

Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because of the centrality of lighting menorah candles each night (beginning with one the first night and then adding another each evening). And Christmas is marked by bright lights as well, on Christmas trees and on the exterior of many homes and other buildings. This surely is a reflection on the star that guided the magi from the East to the stable in Bethlehem. Both of these holy times are dear to me, and I know to many others as well.

winter_night_snowflakes_merry_christmas_sky_hd-wallpaper-1613250
imagesbot.com

But light is not central to two other celebrations, namely the winter solstice and Kwanzaa. In fact, they are really celebrations of darkness.

I cherish darkness–skin tones to be sure–but more, too. I value the dark of night, I value being in the dark, meaning not being sure of exactly where I am or where I am going or what is around me. I have a feeling this is not how many, probably most, people feel.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use “dark” to describe something good. Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people’s minds . . . without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 54)

I don’t meant to suggest, any more than Taylor does, that there is never danger in the dark. But in a world where terrorists randomly kill and behead people and fly planes into tall buildings, police shoot people even as they lay dying,  and people drive cars into crowds to express their frustration–all in broad daylight or on well-lighted sidewalks and streets–I am not convinced that being in the light is all that much safer than being in the dark.

fire in darkness
myinnermystic.wordpress.com

We can learn from the dark. Do you realize that if you are outside at night and you shine a light on something that you will see it in some ways better than without the light, but at the same time that the light will block out what is around the object and around you? Light actually limits the range of your vision.

That limited vision is reflected in white racism and white privilege, too–many of us are conditioned to not really see the darker-skinned people in our midst as full members of the human race. If white, or light, is the norm, is the preferred coloration, we devalue our siblings and all the richness, truth, and beauty of their divinely created humanity.

starry night sky in winter
vi.sualize.us

And at this time of the year, in the northern half of the globe, we are given the opportunity to slow down, as the plants and trees and many of our fellow animals are doing, and rest, letting go of our need to see everything and be everywhere. I am not a big fan of cold weather–and really dislike snow–but I do value the opportunity to burrow into the cocoon that is our home and feel enveloped by darkness that is longer each day.

Of course, we have moved into a more urbanized area than our former neighborhood in Richmond, and the porch lights of neighbors, perhaps 100 feet away, seem perpetually on–but still I have the great joy of taking Cocoa out for a dark walk at 10 pm or so (most people do not leave their exterior lights on and the tree-covered walkways of our two-hundred-plus acre co-op are wonderful for walking). I also cherish going out before sunrise to walk with him. If you do this, perhaps you too notice how much more clearly the bare trees stand out against the night sky. They are a great joy to my soul.

Close-up of a family celebrating Kwanzaa
kunm.org

I don’t want to stop celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but I want to put more emphasis on the Solstice and Kwanzaa–I want more balance in my life, and that means more dark, less light.

Spiritually speaking, I take my cue from the Hebrew writers of Genesis. Creation started out as void and darkness, and then was given more shape by the creation of light. But the light did not erase the darkness, and both were judged to be good.

May it be so in my life, and yours.

 

 

 

 

The Humility of Christmas

springborofestivals.org
springborofestivals.org

I often feel a bit Scrooge-like at this time of year.

I’m not stingy with gift-giving, and I am certainly willing to wish people blessing and good cheer (and am more than willing to adapt my greeting to accommodate the existence of religious traditions and beliefs, or the lack thereof, that are not my own). But I do become grumpy about what seems like the over-commercialization of a sacred time.

It feels to me that the spirituality of Christmas gets lost in all the office parties, shopping, and even some of the good cheer (maybe the kind of excessive cheer that gets people drunk).

It’s not that spirituality need be glum or only serious without any fun, but there is in living spiritually an inherent depth that is lost in the marketplace. And Christmas has become very much a marketplace event. It is the most important sales event of the year for most retailers.

I know another blog or article bemoaning what has become of Christmas is probably not needed–I don’t think all the ones prior to this have done much good– and it is not my purpose anyway. But is the context in which I write today.

spiritualityandpractice.com
spiritualityandpractice.com

Like many before me, I am in search of the spirituality of Christmas. Or perhaps better, I seek the spiritual practice of Christmas. I often like to think of a spiritual practice as a path to a closer connection with the Divine, the one I call God.

What is the path of Christmas? Please note I am not asking what is the path to Christmas, but the path of Christmas. Christmas is not a destination, not a date on the calendar, but a way of living more deeply, more spiritually.

It begins in humility, the humility of Joseph accepting the child in whose creation he did not play a part and the need to leave his home in Nazareth and journey to Bethlehem by order of the government. And the humility of Mary, accepting a child for which she did not plan. Then there is their shared humility of being consigned to a stable for the birth, and being overwhelmed (I would think) by angels, shepherds, and wise man from another land and religious tradition coming to celebrate this event (something neither of them could have anticipated).

kellyneedham.com
kellyneedham.com

The first path of Christmas is humility, a way of being open to, and grateful for, the wonders of God, knowing we did not create these divine gifts, freely given to us without regard to our merit.

Hospitality is a path of Christmas, too. We have no name for the innkeeper, but he responded with kindness and the best hospitality he could muster (probably more likely a cave than a barn-like stable).  We could even say the other animals in the stable were hospitable, by making room for the unexpected visitors. The visitors from the East also practiced the hospitality of guests by bringing gifts. And every birth is a form of hospitality by God, welcoming a new life into the world.

Of course, peace is a path of Christmas–the peace that descends after a successful birth when mother and child can nestle with each other and the father and others can gaze adoringly. And love, too, in much the same way. And surely joy.

blog.birthplaces.com
blog.birthplaces.com

But I want to focus on hope as a significant path of Christmas, specifically the hope of God and others inspired by God–shepherds, wise men, angels–that somehow this birth, this particular birth, would change much in the world for the better. Every birth is transformative, certainly for the mother and the newborn, and usually for others affected by it. In this sense, every birth is marked by hope that the changes wrought will be part of creating a new and better life, not only for the child and the parents but for others as well.

This birth is laden with meaning, however, that goes beyond the immediate persons involved. Whether the details in the biblical accounts are accurate in our modern/postmodern sense of historical truth is really beside the point because the story has become imbued with great power and portent. As the tradition has unfolded, Christmas hope for a world filled with love, peace, and joy is divinely inspired. Such are our hopes, yes, but their source is God. That makes the hope powerful, indeed, provided we continue to acknowledge the source of the power. The same can be said of hospitality.

creation Sistine ChapelIn some ways, then, we are back at humility, recognizing God as the source of all that is good and holy. This is not the humility of groveling at the feet of God but an awareness that God is the author of good, a humility that leads us to sing songs and give thanks and share generously what we have received and are receiving.

So let me be as clear as I can be. There is nothing wrong with buying gifts to share with others, or receiving them either, or to having parties where we welcome friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate and are welcomed by others. There is nothing inherently wrong in buying things from merchants, for ourselves and for others. That is part of being in community, and it is a way of generosity.

07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia --- Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. --- Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis
07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia — Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

But the path of Christmas is so much more than those activities. The path of Christmas is quiet and deep and self-giving, leaving (even breaking) us open to change we cannot predict or control (think about Mary and Joseph starting out on the journey of parenthood and where they ended up).

That is the Christmas I seek, the one I cannot control, the one that brings new revelation and spiritual health and depth into my life, new peace into the world, new love between enemies and those alien to each other.

I feel like a Christmas pilgrim, enjoying the glitter and the sounds and swirling bodies all around me, on my way into a neighboring land where the glitter is of deeper hues, the sound more angelic than even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the energy more organic and less frenetic.

That is my Christmas path, beautiful and challenging. I hope your Christmas path is too. Perhaps we can even share some holy gifts.