Enlightenment @ Christmas


When my daughter was very young, I observed many times that she would wake up in the morning with a bigger vocabulary and better grammar than she had the night before.  It was astounding to consider what had happened in her sleep – that she would wake up brighter than the night before.  In the darkness of night, an inner light got switched on…

When have you been enlightened?  When has the light bulb in your head switched on suddenly, illuminating fresh insight or wisdom? 

It is the season of light.  And of enlightenment.

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of lights – remembering the story of the Jewish people reclaiming their temple after occupation by a Syrian-Greek dynasty.  In haste to re-establish temple customs, they lit a lamp, thinking it would only have enough oil to burn for a day – but it miraculously remained lit for 8 days.  Hence the 8 days of menorah-lighting during Hanukkah.

Like Hanukkah, Christmas is a season of lights.  Jesus is identified in the scripture as the light of the world.  The three wise men were led to the site of his birth by the light of a brilliant star.  It’s a season of candles and colorful lights dazzling on houses. 

And a season to become enlightened…. To notice and amplify the light that shines within us all, revealing inner wisdom and guidance for our lives. 

Not that long ago, the world was dark at night.  No light bulbs, to say nothing of computer and television and smart phone screens.  Candles were dim by comparison.  The second the sun went down, it was a very dark world indeed. 

But for all the light we’re able to produce and enjoy today, are we much more enlightened than people were a century or two ago?  It’s a brighter world, but are we that much brighter as a result?  In some ways, perhaps we’re dimmer…. Cutting ourselves off from direct human contact by our focus on screens… obsessing about unimportant stuff… lost in consumerism… out of touch with nature and the outdoors…. so many people not caring about their neighbors, not even knowing their names…

Our eyes are open, but do we really see?  We need to be re-enlightened, so that we can appreciate the world with awe and wonder again.  And that’s the promise both of Hanukkah and Christmas.  In her poem, the Magnificat, Mary said that her soul magnified the Lord.  A little flicker of divine inner light, amplified by our attention, is enough to reveal what is going on inside of us, and guide us toward our best and highest aims. A little bit of oil in the lamp goes a long way.

The 14th century Christian mystic and priest, Meister Eckhart, used the image of sparks in an outdoor fire that yearn to return to their source in the pure divine light of the highest heaven.  The sparks are so intent on returning that they extinguish themselves on the way up.  Eckhart believed that in the same way, all of us yearn to connect the spark of light within us with the divine source of that light.  But to get there we must do what campfire sparks do as they disappear on their way to heaven – we must release our egos, our selfish small-s selves, to enter into a higher level of consciousness.

When I was a young man, I was homophobic.  Grossed out by gayness.  As were most folks around me at the time.  Until the day that one of my roommates in the house I lived in right after college took me aside and said “we need to talk”.  I had known Greg since high school, and loved him and respected him a lot.  A brilliant and wonderful friend – as he still is today.  We sat down in our living room and, clearly nervous, announced to me that he was gay.

I was blown away.  Boggled. I had no idea.  I just stared at him in a state of total cognitive dissonance.  Then I blurted out  –  “Ohhh, that explains why you are taking tap dancing lessons!”  Which I immediately realized was absurd.  He laughed, I laughed, and that melted the ice.  With me still in a state of shock, he told about his discovery of his sexual orientation.  During our conversation, I felt like somebody had opened up my skull, reached into my brain, shone a light on it, and squished it around and rearranged it, and put it back together again.  Finally I said to him:  “You are one of the best humans I have ever known.  So if you are gay, then gay must be okay!”  In a period of about half an hour, I was converted.  Transformed.  Enlightened.  At that moment I became a queer ally and have remained one ever since.

 What other forms of enlightenment await me?  What enlightenment might come to you this Christmas?

For Hanukkah, for Christmas, the Spanish word for “birth” comes to mind.  In Spanish, to give birth is “dar la luz” – which literally means to “give light”. 

At Christmas, we are delivered into the light of Christ-consciousness.  A birth, and a re-birth.  We celebrate a profoundly beautiful myth that takes hold of our souls, and leads us into deep compassion toward ourselves, toward those near and dear to us, toward the whole human family, and toward our precious earth and its ecosystem. 

“O come O Day-spring, come and cheer, our spirits by your advent here… Love stir within the womb of night, and its dark shadows put to flight…  Rejoice! Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to you O Israel!”


Rev. Jim Burklo is the Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, which is now organizing ZOE, a national network of progressive Christian ministries at colleges and universities.   He is the founder of Souljourning.org, providing resources for families to nurture the natural spirituality of young people.  He retired as the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California in September 2022 and now serves as pastor of the United Church of Christ of Simi Valley, CA. An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity.  His latest is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.orgJim and his wife Roberta live in Ojai, CA. 

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