Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of other men… I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” -Albert Einstein
The Darkest Day
My attention is captivated not by how religious traditions differ but by how similar they are, particularly in moments of universal truth. One such moment happens every year at the winter solstice. This is the moment when the darkness that falls across the Northern Hemisphere is at its deepest. Before December 21, the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer and colder. The dark days of winter have their place, but there comes a point when we can no longer sit in the dark. Various faith traditions rise up, each in its own way, as a response to those darkest days of the year.
Christmas and Hanukkah are millennia-old attempts to dispel the darkness. In celebration of Christmas, trees and homes are decorated with lights, and some people place candles in windows. In celebration of Hanukkah, Jews light the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum. To fulfill the purpose of the holiday, the menorah isn’t placed in the interior of the home. Rather, it’s set up in the most publicly visible location: a window or the exterior of the house. There it can fully illuminate the darkness and allow others to see. Together, these traditions and their rituals hold thousands of years of shared purpose and power. Each has a metaphor for shining spiritual light and illuminating a darkened world.
Kwanzaa, an African American and Pan-African holiday, began in 1966 in celebration of family, community, and culture. It lasts for seven days, from December 26 through January 1. Like Hanukkah, a central activity is lighting candles on what is called a mishumaa.
Hindus across the world celebrate Diwali, which falls on the fifteenth day of the auspicious Hindu month of Kartik—around November on the Gregorian calendar. Diwali falls on a day with no moon. Candles are lit in homes to symbolize the triumph of good over evil. Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains also celebrate Diwali and offer light amid the darkness.
For the Chinese, the winter solstice is a celebration of the triumph of yang (light) over yin (dark). The holiday, called Dong Zhi, is celebrated during the eleventh lunar month with a ceremony near the family altar, which includes incense, candles, and offerings of prayers.
While these traditions are different, their sentiments are universal. We intuit that the human predicaments of mortality, struggle, and death are to be confronted head-on rather than avoided. We stand in opposition to the darkest days of the respective calendars, almost like warriors in battle. The darkness can feel all-encompassing, but across continents, religions, cultures, and time, we sense that the best response to the darkness is to dispel it with light.
There Shall Be Light
In many ways, we embody one of the primary messages in the Bible. After the dark of chaos comes the defining moment of the creation story: “And God cried out, there shall be light, and there was light.” God’s first act was to shatter the darkness through the creation of light. In essence, as the winter solstice or other dark moments on the calendar settle in, we defiantly illuminate the dark and create our own light. The darkness is still out there, and our candles are but specks. Our traditions show that it’s our mission to bring light into the darkness. We carry the light into the dark to remind ourselves that a shift is taking place, darkness will diminish, and eventually, there will be light again.
Christianity and Judaism both teach that we are created, “in the image of God.” The Kabbalists go deeper into this idea, re-reading the Hebrew “in the image of God” (b’tzelem Elohim), through another lens, “in the shadows God is found”.
Christmas and Chanukah fall around the winter solstice to remind us that it’s easy to find the Divine in the light, to be godly when it’s bright. The real work, the call of these great Holy Days, and the reason why we are on this earth is to shine light out into the world when it is dark.
During this Holy Day Season, into the New Year of 2021, and during this time of deep darkness in our world, may each of us do our part and live out our mission. When we do, “there shall be light,” and we will have transformed the darkest day into the brightest night!