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Light in the Midst of Darkness

I have always been an early riser. According to my parents I was this way as a very young child. My mother used to jokingly complain, “It was like you could not wait to start the day.” Even as a teen I would often slip out of bed to watch the sun slowly climbing over the trees that bordered our Northeastern fence line. I suppose I am like my dad in this way. He was an early riser as well. I have some fond memories of just the two of us sitting in the kitchen together quietly talking and sharing a cup of hot chocolate before anyone else in the house was awake.

I presume this characteristic could simply be imprinted in my DNA. It may also be a result of those lovely experiences I had as a child. But early mornings are still important to me. Frankly, I still wake up wondering what wonderful or exciting things are going to happen that day. It is also the time when I do most of my creative thinking and writing. I still have special places where I go to quietly wait for a new day.

When I am struggling, maybe with grief, or trying to sort out something difficult in my life, I often go to a special spot and quietly wait for the new sun to appear. It always makes a significant difference in my being when I do this. My load feels lighter. My fears often dissolve. My grief can be transformed into hope. Over the years I have thought of all kinds of metaphors that may explain this phenomenon. I am reminded that it is a new dawn, or a new day. No matter how painful or dark my situation seems to be, as that sun comes over the horizon everything in my life begins to look and feel different. The new sun symbolizes a new beginning for me. I feel I have gained a new perspective. My internal darkness has dissolved into new light and I am comforted.

It is sad if not tragic that so many people in our crowded world now live in developed areas where they rarely experience real darkness. The constant glare from street lights, house lights, car lights, billboards, cell phones and computers keeps us hidden from the darkness. And therefore the slow but definitive transition from darkness into light is lost to so many and experienced by so few. Without that, it is difficult to appreciate the new light. This transition is one of the fundamental rhythms of nature. Whether we recognize it or not, we are part of nature.

The late John O’Donohue, wrote in his wonderful book, Anam Cara: “It is one of the tragedies of modern culture that we have lost touch with these primal thresholds of nature. The urbanization of modern life has succeeded in exiling us from this fecund kinship with our mother earth. Fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form. We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss, consequently, the pain of our spiritual exile is more intense in being largely unintelligible…Just as darkness brings rest and release, so the dawn brings awakening and renewal. In our mediocrity and distraction, we forget that we are privileged to live in a wondrous universe. Each day the dawn unveils the mystery of this universe. Dawn is the ultimate surprise; it awakens us to the immense ‘thereness’ of nature. The wonderful subtle color of the universe arises to clothe everything…Colors bring out the depth of secret presence at the heart of nature.”(pg. 2)

Our early ancestors took these transitions seriously. For one thing they were part of an agricultural society. Their lives were dependent on knowledge of the seasons and the life of the sun. That is why so many of the ancient religious expressions were based around the worship of the sun. When the sun sank into the horizon they could never be certain where it was going or if it was going to come back. This got particularly scary during the winter when provisions were dwindling and the daylight hours become shorter each day. This is why most cultures included the worship of the sun or Sun God. There was almost always a special celebration of the day or the week when it was clear the days were becoming longer again. In the Roman Empire when Christianity was becoming an institution, those celebrations came to be called the winter Solstice or Sol Invictus.

After living in the Pacific Northwest for nearly a decade, I must admit the Winter Solstice has taken on a much larger importance in my life. During the winter, wherever you are—unless, of course, you live on the equator—the time of daylight gets shorter. On the latitude where we now live, the changes are far more dramatic than other areas where I have lived. Over a period of six months, from late June to late December, we slowly lose approximately eight hours of sunlight during the day. Sunrises are much later and sunsets much earlier. We spend a lot more time in darkness during the winter months. Many of us wait, sometimes impatiently, for the morning light. You will meet very few people in this area who cannot tell you the exact date of the Winter Solstice. Many of us attend Solstice celebrations. Occasionally we actually get what it must have been like for people who were trying to survive off the land 2000 years ago.

The decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th was made in the early fourth century when Constantine was the Roman Emperor. Constantine was grounded in the cult of Sol Invictus. The date was selected for Jesus’s birth in order to correspond with the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Make no mistake, it was both a political as well as a cultural decision that worked for the Roman Empire and for the new empire church. I find it both interesting and even ironic that the Yeshua movement was started, in part at least, as an anti-empire movement. Yet 300 years later it was absorbed and became a tool of the very thing the movement opposed and had cost Jesus his life. This would be a lot like Monsanto absorbing the Whole Foods Corporation which specializes in selling organic foods.

For decades, I have felt compelled to explain that December 25 was really not the date Jesus was born. I suspect I have ruined Christmas mornings for more than one parishioner. But I thought this was important to explain because it provided an example of how so many things in the Jesus story were changed to fit the bias of the authors. It also bothered me because it represented another example of how the powerful took over the leadership and interpretation of the Jesus story.

However, over the last few years, I have begun to think that celebrating Jesus’ birthday on the same holiday of Sol Invictus or the Winter Solstice was actually a good idea and in some ways appropriate. I rarely quote from the Book of John because we know there is little authentic Yeshua history in this late Gospel. In fairness, the writer or writers of the book of John did have the perspective of how Yeshua teachings may have had a positive, even enlightening impact on his first century followers. Maybe that is why as I write this, I continue to hear John’s voice whispering in my ear.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

Jesus entered the world in a dark time in human history, particularly for his own people, the Jews. I will not go into the gory details here but few of us can even begin to grasp how hopeless and dark the world must have seemed to those oppressed people. They were living under extraordinary conditions. Most of them had lost the titles to their family farms. Through brutal and unfair taxation they had become tenant farmers on the same land their families may have owned for centuries. They had to endure unfair and abusive behavior from the Roman Empire and its soldiers who enforced the restrictive laws of both the Romans and the Temple priests. They had to fear death constantly through execution or starvation. This must have seemed particularly unimaginable for people who believed their G-d was watching out for them.

It was into this great darkness that Yeshua entered the world. In spite of his humble beginning, somewhere along the way he managed to bring a new light, a new perspective to many of his followers. For some it became a dawning or an awakening unlike any other. In spite of how we have adjusted or retold the Jesus story over the centuries, this man’s life continues to inspire, to guide, to cajole millions more people into an awakening. For many it is an awakening from sleep. For others it is awakening from the darkness of the emotional winter, the overwhelming sense of loss or the pain of recognizing an unfulfilling or wasted life. For 2000 years, his teachings have guided people to new awareness, a new dawning, and his teachings continue to be a light for those who are willing to live his compassionate ways. I must admit it now seems perfectly appropriate to me to celebrate this unique man’s life and legacy during the time of year promising a new dawn and offering a new beginning.

I wish for each and every one of you an enlightened Christmas and a joy-filled New Year. And may I also wish you a very bright, merry Solstice. Let there be light.

Sunrise on the Water - by Fred


photo by Fred Plumer, Fox Island Sunrise

Review & Commentary