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December 9, 2007: “A Season of Lights: That May Be the Real Reason for the Season”

There is a story told about a traditional minister and one of his children around Xmas. One of the minister’s children wrote a 12 page anonymous letter to Santa, and the father was upset about the obvious greed of his young daughter, so he took her into the living room and sat her down in front of the Nativity scene. He then talked about the baby Jesus in the manger, about gentleness, love, and courage, and how all of these can come together on Xmas Day. When he finished he said, ‘now I’d like you to write another letter and think about what I’ve said, and this time write the letter to the baby Jesus.’

A little while later the girl went to her bedroom to write another letter, and wrote, ‘Dear Jesus, I’ve thought about your story and I promise to be good for a whole year. Please see to it that I get toys.’ Well, of course that wasn’t what the father had in mind either, so back she went to write another letter, and soon returned with one that said, ‘Dear Jesus if you will make sure that I get all the presents I want, I will be good for a whole week.’ No. Still not quite getting the message she was sent back for a third tim, not very pleased, as we might imagine.

So the little girl went back to the living room and again looked at the manger. She reached down and picked up the figure of Mary, put it in a shoe box and set the box in the very back of the deepest closet she could find. Then with a satisfied smile she sat down and wrote her final letter’ ‘Dear Jesus, If you ever want to see your mother again”

One of my favorite PEANUTS cartoons has Lucy coming to Charlie Brown and saying, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. Since it’s this time of the season, I think we ought to bury past differences and try to be kind.” Charlie Brown asks, “Why does it just have to be this time of the season’? Why can’t it be all year long?” Lucy looks at him and exclaims, “What are you, some kind of fanatic?”

Indeed, I think that might be a good sermon title, sometime, about this season, “What are you, some kind of fanatic?” Why is it in these days of high technology, when we can program a computer to turn on and off our lights, our heat, our coffee maker, that some of us still seem to to need, and I emphasize the word, “need”, deep within our modern psyches, this holiday season of light? Why haven’t we rational, religious liberals “outgrown” our need for candles and carols, for holiday decorations- even in the house of the most rabid atheist? What is it about this season that can sometimes soften the hardest of Scrooge hearts?

This season of light includes a wide variety of religious and even secular holidays, and I don’t mean to imply that they are all the same, or all alike. Most Jews do not consider Hanukkah to be the Jewish “equivalent” of Xmas, nor do most Christians consider Xmas to be just about light. We religious liberals have a defensive habit of lumping all religions together, except our own, and saying they’re all alike. We suffer prejudice here, and I think we need to be aware of it. Religion has many different faces, many paths, and ours is but one of those. It might be more accurate to speak of those things which religions have in common which meets the needs of various people throughout the world, and throughout history. We can see common themes, and it is these that we often try to draw wisdom and meaning from. Let us not forget that our interconnectedness to all people, all religion, does not mean there are no unique differences.

In this season of shortened daylight and longer nights, we sometimes see our own lives metaphorically lived out in the seasons of the sun. We need to find more light in these longer and colder nights, and on the winter solstice, the sun, our life-supporter, seems reborn as the longer days begin. Perhaps there’s a part of us deep within that still unconsciously believes in magic, in what Sir James Frazer described as “homeopathic magic”- that “like attracts like”.

So the ancients believed and lit their bonfires on the hillsides to bring back the great bonfire in the sky- and of course, it worked! Just as we rational UUs find ourselves inadvertently “knocking on wood” for some long-forgotten reason, so we, too, participate in lighting up this season with candle and colored bulb. On the surface, you see, we participate in the season out of habit, perhaps even out of peer pressure, or our favorite excuse,-“for the children”.

It is the season of Winter Solstice celebration, a season of lights in the midst of a season of ever-darkening days. The winter Solstice, Xmas, Hanukkah, Devali, or a thousand other names, almost all festivals of light- of candle flame representing old Sol- the sun. It is a season which I feel and believe goes beyond “Glad tidings of reason and fact”.

Hanukkah is known as the festival of lights, and is based on the story about the Jews overthrowing the Romans and being free. and of the miracle that though there was only enough oil for one light of the lamps burning they burned for eight! The temple could only be used when the lamps were lit. and one article about Hanukah says that ‘when the menorah is lit, it is not supposed to be used for any other purpose except contemplation and closeness the God. Reading to the light or using it to light the room is not permitted. ‘

Rabbi, social justice activist and writer Michael Lerner, editor of TIKKUN, talks about the deeper meanings of Hanukkah in THE SPIRITUAL MESSAGE:’ ‘The miracle was this: a critical mass of people had come to recognize that there was a Force in the world that made possible the transformation of what is to what ought to be (the Force that we call God). That recognition, when it takes hold of large numbers of people, becomes a manifestation of God’s presence, and in that presence , the power of the people, suffused with divine energy, becomes greater than all the technology and manipulations of the most sophisticated forms of oppression.

Our survival and the survival of the entire planet,’ he continues, ‘depend on our ability to create a world of love and caring, a world of peace and justice, a world in which every human being is treated as an embodiment of the spirit of God. The possibility of building such a world was precisely what Hellenism denied, and precisely what we affirm when we take God seriously. Chanukah is thus a holiday of tikkun–an affirmation of the possibility of possibility’ tikun olam- a repairing of the world.

AND DEEPLY SEE once and for all.

“Unite the light within you with the light of Brahman. Thus will the source
of ignorance be destroyed, and you will rise above karma.”
–The Svetasvatara Upanishad, before 400 BCE

“The lights of great cities go out, and there is a howling darkness to all
appearance. But always since men began, the light of the pure God-knowing
consciousness has kept the light.”
–D.H. Lawrence, “On Human Destiny,” Assorted Articles, 1930

“The one essential thing is that we strive to have light in ourselves. Our
strivings will be recognized by others, and it will shine out from the.”
–Albert Schweitzer, Memories of Childhood and Youth, 1931

“It is the business of the Church, to be the candlestick in which the light
ever shines, the holy lamp in which that flame ever burns.”
–Fr. Andrew SDC, Meditations For Every Day

   "Into my heart's night
   Along a narrow way
   I groped; and lo! the Light
   An infinite land of day."

–Rumi, (1207-73) Trans. Reynold Nicholson

There was recently an article in the Plain Dealer about the Hindu Holy day of these times called Depvali, also called the festival of lights. Something caught my eye in the colorful picture of the ritual-piles and piles of food! All given to God, of course, yet in the next sentence a participant [ant talks of how everyone finally eats this food for God. It reminded me of the great sacrifices of bulls, lambs doves on the Jewish altars, and that it was said that God loved the smell of the smoke! The word barbecue came to mind. A Supreme Being with no bodily functions needs no sacrificial meat nor sacred light, nor even unselfish love! But WE DO! God is the excuse for our own attempt to live good and loving lives, as if we couldn’t do it by ourselves. Light and love are celebrated to remind us.

There are bonfires and fireworks. Presents are given; Laksmi, goddess of wealth is worshipped-‘Praise to Varuna, the god of fire and light, who shines rom within himself for he is above all others in mightiness. Since we have honor you, Varuna, we hope to receive from you the blessings of fire and light.’

One of my favorite Xmas memories growing up was going to church on Xmas Eve as a family, then driving around town to see the beautiful lights, and finally home. Oh at home, greed reared its head, but the going to church and seeing the lights brought the religious significance to the time. Most religious holidays have sweets and presents for the children and beautiful lights, of course, so that we will be bribed into participating until we can spiritually understand, We go to church as a family on a cold winter night which represents death, darkness, loneliness, emptiness. In church we are promised warmth, love, meaning, fulfillment, and eternal life.

“Light, love, life,’ writes the former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Eugene Pickett, speaking of Xmas: ‘these are some of the universal need symbolized in the Christmas season,” He warns us to watch out for their opposites and the mixture of these symbols which produces ” Christmas Syndrome: A way of not becoming entrapped in the ‘Christmas Syndrome’ is to refuse to go along with whatever it is that works to spoil the season for you. What really counts at Christmastime are aspirations of hope and peace, feelings of goodwill and joy, and personal relationships the sharing of warmth and love. These aspirations and feelings and relationships are not something that will happen just because it’s Christmas.

This is especially so for those of us who are prone to loneliness. Faced with loneliness, we can meet it creatively recognizing our deep need for relatedness- and strive to build relationships that are rich with understanding, empathy, and affection.”

No other time during the year did we have an evening church service like Xmas eve. Easter Eves are common, though I don’t remember any. Perhaps because the symbol of the birth of the Christ, the Light of the world, the potential of every birth comes from ancient time till now. Think as well that seasonally, Solstice is more about death than birth; animals are born in spring. Winter is like death. So the Christ child, the birth story in the midst of winter, a universal story with many deities born this time. The Christ child is the potential of light, which starts getting longer at the solstice!

The Christ is found not in some humble stable
On Bethlehem’s plain,
But in all hearts that seek to heal
The world’s dark pain.
Not on some Holy Night of long ago
To angel strain–
While shepherds watched their slumb’ring flocks–
Alone, he came.
But when in calm of quieter hours,
Our souls aspire
To make the paths of truth and peace
The heart’s desire;
And selfless love becomes a mighty urge
That stirs the mind–
A sacrificial flame that burns the dross
And joy we find
In simple things, in gentle laughter free
From pride of self;
It’s then, we sense a Presence, all serene,
So strong, so still.
–Horace Westwood

I will argue that a part of all religion is about is about the mystery of birth-where were we before we were conceived? and death – where do we GO when we die, and, perhaps the most important about potential, about hope, about possibilities, That death is often described as cold and dark, and therefore the opposite is warm and light. Death is being alone and life is being loved in community, family. Life is about potential, about light and warmth in the dark and cold. The hearth, the fire, is the symbol of life in cold climates; it must never be allowed to go out. Fire provided light as well, of course. Hence the sacredness of fire in most religions, often seen as candle light, but sometimes bonfire, or the old English custom of the Yule log as well.

  1. Chalice Lighting Unitarian Universalist minister, Roger Greeley, writes this:
    That there may be love (I will be loving)
    That there may be peace (I will be peaceful)
    That there may be joy (I will be joyous)
    That there may be warmth (I will be warm)
    That there may be kindness (I will be kind)
    That there may be friendship (I will be a friend)
    When the candle is spent and the Yule log, ash; and wreath removed
    and the tree-stand put away,
    I shall keep alive/in my life/love–peace–joy/
    and kindness–friendship–and warmth. (At least I hope that I do,
    for if I don’t /the season passed me by
    without my even KNOWING it.)

A thousand years ago different religions seemed for different places and people. Emerson and the Transcendentalists started popularizing Hinduism and Buddhism in mid 19th century, and study of comparative religions began about the end of the 19th century by Unitarians and other free thinkers. Today when the world is so interdependent, religion needs to be about universality, peace on earth, and tolerance for a variety of Religious Experiences, as William James would say.

The English Unitarian in the late 18th century, James Martineau , was already saying: ‘The Incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively, but of man universally.’

The German Mystic of the 17th century Angelus Silesius would write- ‘Should Christ be born a thousand tines anew, Despair, O man, unless he’s born in you.’

And Islam also around this time of year has a message from their holy book, the , Qur’an 17.33 ‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. ‘ Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’

“This is the season,” writes UU minister and mystic, Jacob Trapp,
“when the child in the heart of us all awakens and the embers of long-forgotten dreams
are blown into flame. The tramp of the legions is stilled; the Caesars lie in the dust,
but the light from that humble stable shines warm and bright.
Something old and almost lost amid the clutter of the years is calling from the skies and across the fields of snow.
The night winds are stilled and in the darkened heavens
the stars foretell of lengthening days and the birth of spring after the winter’s cold.
This is the sign that the light of hope, which shines
in the dimness of our broken dreams, will never fade or die.
O stretch your hands, palsied by fear, and with the simple trust of the child,
grasp another’s hand and walk the way together.
Though the darkness press in upon us and the promise of Christmas comes
like an echo of music upon the wind,
let our hearts remember that loveliness, that light.”

So this season of light is about potential.- of peace, justice, sharing. Sometimes during this time in the midst of the hectic Xmas rush, people act differently- we may smile more, we may wish total strangers happiness and a merry Xmas, we might share Xmas cheer, we go around really wishing for peace on earth, good will to all. Yes, imagine the potential of peace on earth, not just for a few days , but for a lifetime. And imagine what this world would be like if we all could realize our own inner potential, and if we could help one another realize the world’s potential.

As we put up our lights of the season, even the highways seem to become more warm and friendly. I especially like the look of single electric candles in the windows, seen on a dark snowy evening which seems welcoming somehow with its warmth.

The lights of the season become the beacons of hope that the Xmas Spirit may live within us, that we may always celebrate our connections to each other and the world, the interdependent web.

Let us learn to see beyond the hype and commercialism, beyond the gridlocked rush and last minute shopping, beyond the “gimme-gimme-I want everything on TV”, beyond all those things about this season we find ourselves “bracing for”, and find new meanings in this season of light. Let the deep meanings of life itself be illuminated by Xmas and Hanukkah light, as candles and multi-colored bulbs light up the darkness of our lives. May we all find the spirit of this season, the spirit of life.

Peace, Shalom, Salaam, May the light of the world be the love which brings peace on earth, good will to all everywhere, all the time, through all religions.