A couple of weeks ago I was walking in Harvard Square with my brother, John Oyama, and we were talking about the Christmas lights (or holiday lights!) that are strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the States and beyond this time of year.
“Isn’t that interesting” and “why do they do that?” we were saying to one another. If we were to ask the public works department, and shopkeepers, and you who are householders, “why do we adorn our life and livelihood with lights at this time of year?” we would undoubtedly hear a great variety of explanations, the lowest common denominator probably being, “It’s a tradition,” or “It’s our custom; this is what we’ve always done.” Which is true… mostly.
These lights we customarily see most everywhere this time of year actually have a Christian history, but probably not a Christian origin. We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but only since the fourth century. i We know this from the Roman almanac. Prior to the fourth century, the date remembered for Christ’s birth – if it were celebrated at all – depended on local custom. In the fourth century, with Emperor Constantine becoming Christian, so much of the former pagan empire became the holy Roman empire. The followers of Jesus who, heretofore were haunted by threats of persecution and who had to meet clandestinely for worship, now were in the ascendancy. They claimed the Roman basilicas as their own houses of worship. The pattern of attire of the Roman Senators and patricians was transformed into the vestments of clergy; and the cultic calendar of ancient Rome was, in a number of ways, merged or “baptized” by the church. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 is not clear; however it’s probably because the early Christians wanted the date to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25 which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti). This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rose higher in the sky. ”ii December 25. And so, light has figured very importantly. We remember that the shepherds and, later, the Magi, found their way to the Christ child by the light of starry night. In later years, the gospel writers remembered Jesus’ saying of himself, “ I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”iii The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews remembers Jesus as the “reflection of God’s glory.”iv
We can string the tradition of lights this time of year back to these early centuries that predate Christ. Whether or not we, today, consciously understand the history and symbolism of festal light, we do innately crave light. Whether we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), or whether we’re afraid of “things that go bump in the night,” or whether we simply feel that we’re “in the dark” about the mystery of our own life, we crave light and enlightenment, especially some seasons of our lives, I would say. These artificial strands of light we see everywhere are reminders of how common and how deep this craving for real light actually is, and to the depths of our souls.
Here are some scenes of light, some word pictures of about light:
- In the Genesis creation story, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was everywhere… And on the first day, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And it was good. Do you recall, it was not until the fourth day, in the creation story, that the sun and moon and stars of the sky were created? Which is to say God’s light precedes our light. I think it can make a remarkable difference in your day, in your life, to face God’s light. Not unlike on a sunny day in winter when it feels so good to have the sun shine on your face, simply do that: dare to face God, who knows you, who sees you, and who sees into you, not in a critical light but in an adoring light. Let the light of God’s countenance shine on you. No need to hide. God knows, and God knows you, and the only way you will know how much God knows you and loves you is to face God, the source of all enlightenment, so that “the eyes of your [own] heart also be enlightened.”v
- Mirror that light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….” Presume that the reason you are yet alive, for as much as one more day, is to participate in the life and light and love of God. You are a living mirror. Bear the beams of love. Look upon others and be radiant with God’s love for them. They may otherwise never know, in this life, or at least not know in this day, how much God loves them. And what shame to go through a day without being reminded how much God loves you. Mirror that light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God.
- If the light of God seems occluded from you just now, this is what hurts and this is what helps. What hurts is anger, resentment, disdain, and envy. This will crimp the conduit of God’s light into your soul, and without that light you will feel lost. Anger, resentment, disdain, and envy block the light and leaves you opaque with nothing, certainly nothing good, to reflect. And that hurts deeply and needs to be purged from your soul: anger, resentment, disdain, and envy hurts. What helps is thankfulness. Thankfulness is like a router; it’s like angioplasty to the soul. If you are, at this moment, not deeply in touch with gratitude, then you don’t know what you’re missing… but you can find out very quickly. Simply be thankful, now: for your ability to breathe; for the color red; for music and harmony and ears to hear it; for the ability to walk; for light and heat; for a bed on which to sleep; for someone who has stood by you and not forgotten you. On and on you could go. It could be like praying without ceasing, to live that gratefully. It would hardly leave room for anything less than life simply being a gift to you. And it could also make a world of difference to others. “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….”
Not long ago I was sharing a conversation with someone who was, as they said, “in the doldrums” about Christmas. “It just isn’t like it used to be. It’s too bad; it’s really sad,” they said. And so I asked them how it used to be? And they spoke of Christmastide almost like it was a scene out of the Nutcracker Suite: gingerbread and candies; everyone getting along; laughter and delight; and Jesus in the crèche. It was a sense of innocence… or maybe it was just ignorance,” they said. “Now we have instant news and the worldwide web, and I feel stuck in the web. I know too much.” It was quite a moving conversation, and I listened to them with much compassion, more than they might have known. They finally asked me if I could give them some spiritual direction so that they could get back to the way they used to feel at Christmas?” “Well,” I told them after a pause, “Maybe you should take one of those charter flights to Minneapolis and spend a day at the Mall of America!” – We laughed together, and I told them I was being a little outrageous, and then I admitted I didn’t know how to help them with this. And I don’t. There’s no going back, to either a real or an imagined past. The wound of knowledge is indelible. I told them what I would say to you: if reading the newspaper, and surfing the web, and hearing NPR with news from Washington and Detroit and New Orleans, from Baghdad and Kabhal, from Columbia to the Sudan is inescapably heavy this Christmas season, bear this news just like the Virgin Mary bears her son into a very violent and unjust world. Jesus comes to us as God Emmanuel, God with us, and God with everyone else, too. Rather than our experiencing the sorrows of our world as a source of our own desolation; hear the news as a clarion call, as motivation and clarification for what we are to be about as followers of Jesus Christ: to bear the beams of God’s love and light and life, especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise know it. Your own life is a Christmas gift from God and to God. We hear Jesus say: “You are the light of the world. …Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”vi If you were to say, there doesn’t seem to be much light in me right now… you might be surprised. In a dark place, even a little bit of light will have a brilliant effect. You are teeming with light.
One last word about light in darkness, drawing on the insight of St. John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. John of the Cross speaks of what he calls “the dark night of the senses,” when our normal spiritual consolations – good feelings, stillness, insights – fall away. He says, those moments are “like standing in a dark room. We become accustomed to the dark and can make out the vague shapes of a table here, a chair there. But if someone suddenly flips on a bright light, we are blinded – we experience a kind of darkness even though the room is flooded in light. Likewise, when we feel complete darkness in prayer, it may be because [God’s] light is so close that it blinds us, and all we ‘see’ is our own darkness.”vii You are not alone in the dark. If this Christmas you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, may I, respectfully, suggest you rephrase the question? The question is not whether God is with you, but how God is with you? Because God Emmanuel is with you, and with the rest of us, whether here or near or far away, all around this world. Whether the landscape of your soul is brightly illuminated just now, or whether you are temporarily blinded by more light than you can bear, or whether the darkness simply seems to loom large, God is with you. Take the risk of being as adventurous and as courageous as the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the wisemen to believe it be so. Bear the beams of God’s light and life and love with extravagance. There’s more where it all came from: God’s light, to lighten the way. Which is good news, very good news.
i The AD 336 Roman almanac notes the December 25 th celebration of Christmas.
i Hebrews 1:3.
iii John 8:12.
iv Hebrews 1:3.
v Ephesians 3:14-21.
vi Matthew 5:14-16.
vii The Dark Night, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross , rev. ed., trans Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD (ICS Publications, 1991); from bk. 1, ch. 8, #1, p. 375.