The Light of Christmas
Last week, Rabbi Ted Falcon wrote about the themes of light and darkness in the context of this season of the year—about the need for hope in our troubled world. In Judaism, light plays an enormously important role. It is not surprising that the same is true in Christianity. If we don’t feel we have some access to light, we can be overcome by darkness, loneliness, despair, fear and depression. We can become imprisoned by any of those experiences when all we see is darkness.
Of course, in Christianity, the light of Christmas is not just about lights on a tree or decorations on our homes or in our towns.
I was reminded of this two months ago when Ted and Jamal and I were in the Middle East with a group of fifty pilgrims, part of a trip sponsored by Spiritual Directors International. Among the many places we visited was Bethlehem. We stood in line to see and touch the place where Jesus is said to have been born. As we waited, I wondered what the others in line were hoping for. What would it mean to touch the place where Jesus was born? What would one wish to take away from that experience? How might we hope for our lives to change? It felt like a moment when we may all have been hoping to see some light in the darkness.
Actually, it is doubtful that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More likely, he was born in Nazareth. The first gospel to be written, Mark, makes no mention of Bethlehem. What is even more interesting is that we have absolutely no evidence that Jesus was born in December. Some scholars suggest that the only time shepherds would have been watching their flocks by night would have been during the spring lambing season.
But still, when I hear Christmas carols such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I see images that for me are true. They are beautiful conveyances of a larger and more important truth: light can overcome the darkness. Locating the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice underlines the possibility of liberation from any or all of those ideas that hold us captive when all seems dark.
For me, it isn’t really important where or when Jesus was born. What is important is what I can understand with the help of the literal particulars of the Christmas story. They provide images that can help us remember and keep alive the themes that the stories were created to convey: Light can overcome darkness. We can be released. A new world is possible.
But what light are we talking about? We all know it is possible to shine a flashlight in the darkness and still not see what we need to see. The light in the Christmas story is the same light that Jews experience when they light the candles at sundown on Friday to welcome Shabbat, Sabbath. It reminds us of the importance of spiritual growth, spiritual awareness, and spiritual identity.
One of the purposes of Shabbat is to give us time to be recreated for the task of completing creation in cooperation with God, the Holy One of Being. To do that, we need to rest. We need to recover from the stresses and numbing effect of the activities of daily living. We need to continue with and focus on our spiritual practices, practices such as prayer, meditation, journaling, and reading scripture. Those spiritual practices—along with conversation with friends and family—can fill us and urge us toward that higher place where the needs of the ego can be seen in proper perspective. The light of Shabbat, with its spiritual practices, can take us to a place where the needs of others and the needs of the world can command our attention.
When I see the lights of Christmas, I try to remember what they are pointing to: light coming into darkness, but not just any light. It is the light of the hope that, with the help of God, we can truly help with the completion, the healing, and the salvation of creation. It is true that Christmas is a celebration rooted in Christianity, but as Ted has pointed out, the light is needed by everyone. Any spiritual path whose purpose is to contribute to the common good has a legitimate place at this deep and dark time of year.
May it be that someday, all people will have access to light in this darkness and be able to help with the important healing of creation.
Pastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.
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