Darkness and Light


“Oh, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” from Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical, Mame.

These are desperate days on the planet. 

They are desperate days in our hearts.

Man, do we need “a little Christmas!”

We need the birth of something beautiful, that thrill of hope we used to sing about as children, to return again to our spirits.

We need the arrival of a great light into the deep, dark recesses of ourselves, where joy and wonder have all but vanished.

For Christians, the great festival that interrupts the darkness of human history is called Christmas, that traditionally has lasted from December 25th to January 6th. This twelve-day celebration was designed to recall the birth of Jesus who, the Christian faith system asserted, came to be called “the light of the world.” These nativity narratives, created by second-generation Christians, provided the content for this observance.

In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by the author we call Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol of light was a star – bright, radiant and beautiful – that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have had the power to guide Magi through that darkness to the birthplace of this newborn savior in Bethlehem.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, written sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was not a star, but a resplendent angel accompanied by a heavenly host, who cracked the midnight sky with heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels announced the birth of Jesus, the “true light,” who “came down from heaven.”

Historical records from that period of time are scant, and no one today can date with precision the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop the tradition, however, from locating the celebration in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.

As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped Christmas. Indeed it captured it. That is why the celebration is located in the darkest month of the year, December, in the Western calendar.

Modern people have difficulty imagining the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel in darkness far from home by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon signboards.

For our ancestors, however, the only light of night was provided by the moon and the stars. When the moon faded each month into a total blackout the darkness of night was illumined only by the distant twinkling stars. When clouds made the stars invisible, the darkness was total. With darkness came danger and fear. The darkness was inhabited, it was suggested by a traditional Scottish prayer: “From ghosties and ghoulies/And long-leggedy beasties /And things that go bump in the night/Good Lord, deliver us!”

The relatively recent human ability first to capture fire and later actually to ignite it, was a gigantic step in the quest to defeat the always-threatening darkness. The vast majority of the human beings who have inhabited this earth lived with the presence of an unconquered and unrelieved darkness.

When one further embraces the fact that people in the ancient world did not understand the relationship between the heavenly bodies and the earth, it is easy to understand why mythology and ritualistic acts were wrapped around these mysterious natural wonders. Modern men and women deal with these realities in a quite secular manner. We manipulate our clocks with various time zones and with something we call “daylight savings time.” We anticipate and name the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice. We understand that the earth rotates on its axis as it journeys around the sun every 365¼ days. We know the months when we are closer to the sun and the months when we are farther away. None of this, however, was known by our forebearers. They only knew that the sun seemed to retreat into darkness as the winter came. They wondered why, and they speculated about this observable phenomenon using a wide variety of religious explanations. They lived with a chronic fear that one year the enveloping darkness that came each winter might finally capture the light of the sun forever and thus doom their lives to be lived without any light at all.

For this reason in almost every human culture there was a great religious celebration when the sun stopped its relentless retreat into an ever enveloping-darkness and began its slow but steady return. Christmas became a later historical expression of this ancient celebration. It thus reveals its northern hemisphere, and obviously human origins.

It is time to recognize that religious truth, like all truth, can only emerge out of human experience. Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claims to possess some external, divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. These claims also create the mentality that fuels that religious imperialism that, even in the twenty-first century, underlies human conflict.

The only way for the Christmas yearning for peace on earth to be achieved is for every religious system to face its human origins, and to recognize that all worshipers are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery and wonder of the God, who is beyond anything that human minds can finally imagine. That would represent a gigantic step both into a new sensitivity and away from the negativity that religion perpetually pumps into the human bloodstream. In our observances of Christmas this year, that could well be our most important learning.

Man, do we need a little Christmas. . .right now!