The most powerful and enduring symbol in human history is light — any kind of light — in the midst of darkness. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!” The power of those words goes far beyond their denotative or even their specific symbolic meaning. Specifically, of course, it is the coming of Jesus, called the Christ and the Messiah, that is meant in that particular statement, but whether you are Christian or not, whether you know the source of those words, even if you have never heard them before, they hold great power. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!”: the generic wish, the universal hope.
We pair opposites: Hope and despair, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood, warmth and cold, love and hate, community and alienation, and for all of these we use the symbols of light and darkness. It is not that darkness is always bad. Sometimes in symbols it has a cozy, womblike quality, and some of us even prefer it. I am a night person, both by biological rhythm and aesthetic and practical preference. The spangled night sky is more beautiful to me than the clearest day. Nevertheless, I do prefer it spangled. Of all times of the day, dawn is my favorite, not just because of its quiet beauty, but as a symbol of a new beginning, and darkness as a negative force speaks as powerfully to me as to any day person.
A good friend and colleague of mine once said, “Anyone who is not at least a little afraid of the dark is sadly lacking in imagination.” That is surely true. When so much is impenetrable to the vision, the imagination fills it, and because of survival needs, it fills it with things to watch out for, to beware. It is necessary to be alert to the possibility of danger in the unknown. Probably the main reason that the hymn we just sang was not included in the gray hymnal that we normally use is that the hymnbook commission was convinced that the metaphorical use of light and dark has racist overtones. It seems to me that instead it is ingrained in our most basic instincts.
In the past few years psychology has learned of seasonal depression which seems to exist simply because of the absence of daylight in the wintertime. It seems to be more frequent in the north, as you would imagine, but there seem to be cases of it here as well, as there was an article I read a while ago that described its treatment with ultraviolet light. The article also blamed what it described as the upswing of this particular complaint on the end of Daylight Savings Time. Why they wouldn’t therefore suggest that sufferers simply get up an hour earlier, I do not understand, since I am yet to learn, no matter what the implications seem to be to the ignorant, that there is one whit more or less of daylight than the seasons will allow us, no matter where you put the hands of the clock. Nevertheless, it is clear that human wellbeing depends on light.
Now we seem to have to prove that by becoming ill without it, but in less urbanized times everyone knew it. The rhythm of the seasons with the waxing and waning of light was the human rhythm, and still is, though it is masked by our controlled environment. Even in areas where the changing seasons are less extreme than others, as they are here, the rhythm prevails. The succession of the seasons, the alteration of dark and light, and their changing quantities affect us as they always have, and I suppose always will. Some of the more thoughtful writers of science fiction use as a criterion of a humanly inhabitable planet a similarity to earth in length of day and year.
Our major celebrations have always been seasonal, even when they are theoretically celebrating something else. Especially is that true at the winter solstice, the darkest time of year, when what we celebrate is light — the light that dispels the darkness, and is defined therefore as hope.
Winter solstice celebrations did not begin with the birth of Jesus, and in fact, as I imagine most of you know, scholars believe that if he was born at all, he was born in the springtime. The celebration of his birth at the winter solstice began long afterwards, partly because that was the biggest celebration extant, and his followers wanted it Christianized, but partly too because the celebration of light in darkness was the celebration of the birth of Christ to his followers. He, himself, was the light which came to dispel the darkness of alienation from God, and not to follow him was to be cast into outer darkness.
Nevertheless, the celebration of the winter solstice dates back as far as humankind, and the ways in which it is still celebrated owe more to the primitive and pagan traditions which were based on natural cycles than to any later embellishment.
Consider the state of primitive humanity, even before they began cultivating the earth when they were hunter/gatherers, knowing nothing of the tilt of the north/south axis of the earth which in its progress around the sun causes the changing of the seasons. They knew that the sun was the source of warmth and light, and they noticed, surely at a time even before consciousness or a sense of the passage of time, that the amount of warmth and light was reduced at the same time that plants went into hibernation and even seeming death, and animals either hibernated, or, if they were otherwise available, were thin with want. Surely they wept and prayed in fear and despair, made sacrifices to their nature gods, the most important undoubtedly being the sun, and practiced the sympathetic magic which is the center of the earliest known religious rituals. They turned to the evergreen, the only tree that seemed still to maintain a semblance of life as the symbol of their hope in spite of despair. They hung it with symbolic fruit in hopes that that would cause it to grow edible fruit or cause other trees to fruit again. They lit lights to encourage the sun’s return. And it worked! Think of the joy when they realized at last at the coldest time that the sun was spending a few seconds longer with them each day. Out of darkness, light. In the midst of despair, the return of hope.
As the days became longer and warmer and vegetation began to grow again, it was obvious that they were right that the lengthening of darkness was the cause of their fear and need, and that with the return of light, warmth and plenty also returned. No wonder darkness became the symbol of all that was evil, and light all that was good. It would not even have to be conscious thought, but deeply ingrained in the human psyche. No wonder, too, that with the evidence that their magic ritual had worked they would continue and amplify it. Even if there were skeptics who thought that it might have happened anyway without the ritual, no one would wish to take the chance that they might be right. It was too vital to their lives. Even later when their predictions of the time of the solstices and equinoxes became as accurate as they are today — and that was very early, as they naturally concentrated their efforts at learning on matters that were the most important — the rites continued. So they still do, even though we no longer believe in sympathetic magic, and even though we no longer fear that no matter how consistent the sun, the moon and the very stars may have been in the past they might yet change their minds. Something so basic to our lives as the symbol of ultimate hope cannot be left to science alone.
One of the things I have been resisting for years, ever since formally becoming a Unitarian Universalist, in fact, is the move to stop celebrating Christmas in favor of celebrating the Winter Solstice. I am not really sure why I have resisted it with such emotion, as it makes a great deal of sense on many levels. The issue of Christmas vs. Chanukah is a sensitive one to many of our members who came from Jewish homes, and reasonably so, and a celebration of the winter solstice covers both very nicely, since both have the same symbolism as Christmas does of light in the midst of darkness. That is what most of the holiday decorations and rituals really point to. Also, the first stage of becoming a Unitarian Universalist is often emotional rejection of the ideas and symbols of the religion in which one was born, most often a Christian sect, and to call this winter celebration Christmas seems to deny the validity of that stage, which I would never wish to do. I feel most strongly that the Council of Churches is right to deny us membership on the basis that we are not a Christian religion, since, although we have many Christians among us, we have many more who are not, and therefore to call us Christian is to trivialize both the ideals of Christianity and our own identity as a new voice. I do not consider myself a Christian; I was not reared as one, and I have not embraced it, nor do I expect that I ever shall. Nevertheless, Christmas, called Christmas, is an important part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. The first Christmas tree was erected in
Also I think the Christmas story and the Christian celebration deepen the meaning of the solstice festival in a way that we should appreciate and indeed appropriate from our own past. Not only is it light in darkness, the paradigmatic symbol, but birth at a time of sterility, another powerful symbol of hope and joy.
Some weeks ago I preached a sermon on eschatology and told you of a book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. It was a useful book in several ways, and the part I liked best was the appendix entitled “An Eschatological Laundry List”. It purported to include every possible formulation of ideas for how things will turn out. Eschatology is the study of ending events — the apocalypse is an eschatological event as is the earth falling into the sun, or the sun’s going nova, or whatever your preference may be. This laundry list, however, was on a smaller scale. I looked for my own formulation and found it, though not as I usually phrase it: “Nothing lasts forever.” That can be a faith either of joy or woe, depending on your situation at the moment, whether you would like whatever is happening to last forever or not, but whether of joy or woe, it is true. Nothing lasts forever.
My formulation of it is from the 30th Psalm, one of the most dreadful, militaristic ones: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Again darkness is sorrow and light is joy, and the most joyful celebration of that eschatological truism is at the winter solstice when the darkness of winter is scattered in a feast of lights in anticipation of the return of the sun. We know that it will return because scientists tell us so and we have had all the thousands of years of human history and observation which tell us it too. We know the rhythm of the earth objectively, but also we know it in the depths of our beings in a way that tells us far more than the fact that although the day is the shortest of the year, that merely means that the days will be getting longer again, and that though winter’s deepest cold will be upon us, it will dissipate in the spring. It tells us even more than of the triumph of the human will that imposes light and warmth on cold and dark. It tells us that in sadness there may still be joy, and that in the depths of despair hope springs yet again.