Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
A Season of Light
In the dark days of winter, let us seek light. In this period of the Winter Solstice many traditions find ways to bring light into our lives.
Earlier we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that began Sunday, November 28 and ended eight days later the evening of Monday, December 6. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the defeat of the Syrian occupation in the second century BCE. The menorah was to be lit again, but there was only enough oil for one day, and yet the flame continued for eight days. This miracle led to Hanukkah being called the Festival of Lights. Thus, during the holiday an additional candle is lit each day in the menorah until all are burning on the eighth day.
This week is Christmas and Christians have led up to it by lighting an additional candle each of the four Sundays of Advent, which this year also began on the same day as Hanukkah, November 28. Light is an important part of these celebrations, in part because of the time of year, Winter Solstice, when daylight is the shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. It certainly fits in with other Christian themes, as when Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In the Sermon on the Mount he said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
Other religions recognize the importance of light in their holidays. In the Hindu, Sikh, and other dharma traditions the celebration of Diwali is also considered a Festival of Lights. It represents the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and hope over despair. During these darkest days of the year this theme of light can be a time of renewal, expectation, and hope.
While this time of the year is marked by shorter days and increased darkness, we are also aware of what seems to be an increasing darkness in our world and nation. Anti-Semitism and hate crimes are on the rise in our own country, while tensions and violence between ethnic and religious groups around the world are prevalent in each day’s news.
Sometimes it is hard to see the light when harassment, abuse, bullying, and demonizing the opponent seems to be the standard for the day. Morality is no longer the expectation as long as my side wins. We are drifting further apart into polarization and the so-called “echo chambers” which put the blame on the “other.” Instead of finding ways to work together, everything is put in terms of “us and them."
M. Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the magazine Christian Century about the need to rediscover the virtue of gentleness:
“In these days of intense factionalism and demonizing partisanship, few of us are aspiring to gentleness. … We think about the ‘them’ who are to blame for our problems. ... The harsh reality is that since the day Cain rose up against Abel, we have never been as careful with each other as we were created to be. The Bible’s first story of life outside paradise is about violent conflict between brothers, and we haven’t done much to improve on the plot.”
Barnes cites Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who “claimed that when God’s creatures come together, a holy space is created between them. It is in this realm that they can always find the Creator still at work. If they leave their relationships, they also leave behind that holy space.”
While it does seem that the news is quick to report the negative, could it be because it is not the usual? Indeed, most of life is not violent. As someone pointed out, you never read about an airplane landing safely; it’s the unusual that makes the news.
In these dark days let us seek such glimmers of light and come together from our various traditions to celebrate the light and seek the holy spaces in our relationships. Whatever your tradition, let this dark season of the year be the time to seek the light of goodwill to all, peace on earth, and respect and dignity for all persons.