A Light in the Darkness

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.

Review & Commentary

  • J. Sue Gagliardi

    How beautiful and inspiring your message is, Fred. Thank you.

  • Jill Hileman

    This was lovely and affirming, thank you.

  • Mike Conley

    Thank you Fred, for very touching, insightful reflection, one that I cherish and feel brightened up in the darkness and confusion of our world, even though Southern California is sunny today and the winter solstice is not as obvious.

  • Carol Wimmer

    From the prismatic perspective of Scripture, we are slowly approaching the conceptual hour of midnight on the Eighth ‘Day’ of the human journey through time. The concept of midnight is equal to the concept of a fullness of darkness much like the Winter Solstice when the absence of light is the greatest or the presence of darkness is the greatest. This awareness is profound. Once we get beyond the conceptual hour of midnight on the Eighth ‘Day,’ we will begin to experience insights at an increasingly delightful rate. If one grabs on to a ‘two-clock’ perpective of time, it is easy to understand that we experience this darkness throughout one calendar year on the human 24 hour clock. But on the spiritual clock illuminated through a prismatic reading of Genesis 1, we have been moving toward our Winter Solstice – our fullness of darkness – for the past 2,000 years. Once we journey beyond it, the gradual increase in spiritual light will be slow and steady for the next 2,000 years. The human spirit is most definitely affected by this phenomenon of literal light and spiritual light. See http://www.prismatictheology.com for the two-clock perspective of time. Blessings, Carol Wimmer

  • Rev. Elton Rengstorf

    Fred, I found your message illuminating, refreshing and hopeful. If I were not retired, I would borrow it for a sermon.

  • Becki

    You have given new meaning to Christmas that doesn’t require belief in the virgin birth. You have given me new reason to celebrate.

  • Joe

    wonderful! Thank you.

  • Paul M. Hunt

    Really appreciate how well you bring to focus the metaphorical meaning of Chrismas that can bring the true meaning of this time to all. Thank you Fred for sharing.

  • Pastor Jan


    Your insight into the fact that we cannot see light until we have experienced darkness is meaningful on so many levels. I think of the darkness experienced by so many who are jobless, homeless or penniless. I think of the great darkness experienced by the people in Newton. I think of all of the people who have lost loved ones close to Christmas. And I think of some of the experiences that I have had that have forced me to look for the light in the darkness or to believe that after the darkness there is always light. I often use the analogy that the rainbow comes after the storm. Without the storm, there can be no rainbow. Light is a powerful image for where there is even the crack of light there can be no darkness. May we all be so blessed in 2013 that we will be able to continually look for the light as the changes around us continue to accelerate. And may we be so blessed during this Christmas season that the light of the Christ Child will once again burn brightly within us.

    Pastor Jan

  • Janice Gregory

    Fred — This is stunningly beautiful. I am going to read it to my assembled family tonight.

  • Charmaine

    A beautiful message. Yes, there is much darkness in the world today. Your message inspires each of us to bring the light into our own lives, thus helping to illuminate the world. hank you.

  • Barbara Harvey

    Thank you for your inspiration and insight.

  • Ruth Abel

    Thanks, Fred. That was a wonderful contribution to how we might approach Christmas. We don’t often think of that underlying concept of the darkness of the winter soltice, shortly thereafter lit by the coming light that the birth of Jesus brings. Political decision or not, the date of December 25th serves a useful purpose in this regard. Merry Christmas!. Southern California misses you.

  • Clyde Vasey

    This has been very helpful, however it does not satisfy my feelings about Christmas in a Christian world. We treat those in poverty brutally when we fail to denounce the commercial way most Americans see Christmas. The Christian church needs to emphasis the Light which comes with the birth of Jesus and call out those who have stolen Christmas from so many by insisting we do the things which result in darkness in many lives.