For reasons I cannot explain, I have often find myself as an adult mired in a bit of darkness during the Christmas holidays. This year has been no exception. I am a little surprised, since I have wonderful memories of Christmas in my formative years as a child. But, looking back, it seems like I have been involved with more break ups, more illnesses, more arguments, more hurts around this time of year, than any time during the rest of the year. I am often surprised by the responses I get when I admit this to others. I have done no serious study on the subject, but it seems that a significant number of people with whom I share this holiday secret, tell me that they also have had similar experiences. These conversations sometimes stir up holiday memories in others that are very sad, even scary. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a “bah humbug” kind of guy. There are parts about Christmas that I still love. But the season seems to force me to face more darkness than other times of the year.
I have read many articles about increased depression, family dissension, marital problems and even increased suicides during the holiday season. There are numerous explanations, including forced family gatherings, financial pressure, increased alcohol consumption, increased sense of loneliness and unreal expectations. But lately I have wondered if it also has something to do with the darkness.
Having lived in Southern California for over sixty years, I never paid much attention to Solstice celebrations. It was always sunny. I did grieve a little when daylight savings time stopped for a few months, cutting down on my afternoon windsurfing opportunities. However, after eight winters in the Pacific Northwest, less than 180 miles from the Canadian border, I now can tell you which day the winter Solstice is and for the last six years, my wife and I have found a small group somewhere to celebrate the day when the Sun begins its journey back to fullness. Winter Solstice here means that the days begin to get longer by nearly three minutes every day for the next 182 days. Starting tomorrow the sun will come up a little over a minute earlier and the sunset will occur a little over a minute later where we live. At the time of our Summer Solstice, daylight will last a total of over 8 hours longer. But today we are surrounded with darkness, whether it is darkness in our personal life, or the darkness of unimaginable horrors like Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
If you know your Christian history, you know that it was Constantine who decided in the Fourth century that Jesus’ birthday would be celebrated on December 25, based on the Roman calendar. It is more than likely that this was a political decision that wedded the growing Christian movement to Constantine’s own religious preference. He died a follower of Sol Invictus (Unconquered God), his Christian conversion exaggerated. Most scholars believe that the date of December 25th for Christmas was selected in order to correspond with the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”
It seems clear that this birth date was more of a maneuver for power by someone who was an ego maniac who ruled with brutal power. It is ironic that this was done to honor someone who was teaching the transformative path of letting go of such power. However, even though this date was chosen for all of the wrong reasons, I have come to appreciate it more as I view the birth of Jesus as the beginning of a spiritual journey.
The symbolism of darkness is ancient and cross-cultural. It has many common and yet powerful meanings. Darkness is associated with blindness, night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, being lost, death, danger and yearning. It is a striking image of the human condition.
Light, on the other hand, is a striking contrast. It has always been seen as the answer, the antidote of darkness, and thus a form of salvation. In light one is awake, able to see, to find one’s way. It is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over, the darkness is gone. In the light we feel safer. Light can be warm when we have experienced coldness. In light there is life. So I wonder why so many of us have a hard time on Christmas. In other words where is the light?
I suspect there is no single answer. However, it could be in part, that with all of our shopping, celebrations, forced family affairs, our over-indulgence, that we may be running away from the darkness. Certainly we do not find the inner light in the malls, with the busyness and craziness that we have made as requirement of Christmas. How does one rediscover what the spiritual writer of the Book of John referred to, the Light of the World?
I wonder if we first got in touch with the terrible conditions that Jesus was born into, that it might help us understand why these metaphors were so meaningful then and how they might help us today. It is hard for most of us in the western world to imagine what life was like for the Israelites when Jesus was born. After centuries of oppression by outside empires, unfair taxation by the Romans, with the help of the temple priests, most of peasant farmers had lost their land and their means to survival. Everything worked against the poor peasants being crushed by the forces of their society. It is because of these conditions that liberation theologians referred to this era as a time when the people were rolled over by a blanket of darkness, like the darkness of the night. There must have been a sense of hopelessness and an existential sense of darkness for these people.
These oppressed people knew that they were in darkness. It seemed that the sun had been conquered for them. And yet they never lost hope. They prayed for the return of a messiah like they had prayed for the return of the sun every year. Maybe it is only when we acknowledge the darkness in our lives, we can we see the light. It is hard to see a burning candle in a room filled with harsh light. It is hard to discover the Divine Light within if we fill our lives with unnatural light.
Our world is going through a significant shift, changing faster than most of us can imagine. Some have called it a new Axial Age. As exciting as this may sound, it is causing tremendous stress, anxiety and unfortunately a lot of animosity. We seem to have more darkness than usual.
Maybe during this holiday season, maybe this New Year, we will have the courage as individuals, as well as a society, to look into the darkness of our soul so we might discover the light within.
Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, theologian and a preacher from the thirteenth century, once wrote that the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our own flesh. It is about birthing the Spirit within us. Ultimately, the story of Jesus’ birth is not about the past, but it is about discovering the “Light Within” each of us in the present.
May your Christmas truly be the beginning of a profound spiritual journey of Light.