CHRISTMAS AND HOPE
This entry was first published in the Gallup Independent yesterday, December 24, as a "Spiritual Perspectives" column. Reprinted by permission.
Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus was probably born sometime in the spring, not on the 25th of December when we observe his birth. So why don’t we celebrate the birthday then? Wouldn’t it be much more convenient to shop for gifts and special foods when there’s no snow or icy wind to hamper our preparations? One theory is that when Christianity came to pagan Europe, the priests of the new religion felt they needed to substitute a Christian Holy Day for the pagan Winter Solstice festivities.
Spiritual traditions throughout the world hold celebrations at this time of year. Most, if not all, involve bringing light into the darkness of winter. The Jewish commemoration of Hanukkah is also known as “The Festival of Lights” and involves the lighting of eight candles on eight consecutive nights. Kwanzaa is an African American harvest celebration, during which seven candles are lit to recall the seven principles of African Heritage. Solstice rituals include the lighting of candles. And Christmas decorations are replete with lights of many colors.
These jubilees of light symbolize the human need for hope in times of darkness and cold. At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the Earth is turning back toward the light, and our celebrations of light, although we may not think of this consciously, are a sign of brighter days to come. This may be a better explanation for why we celebrate Christmas in December.
We also find hope symbolized in the birth of a child. After World War II, the need for hope following the devastations of the Holocaust and the release of atomic bombs over Japan resulted in the huge number of births known as the Baby Boom. The birth of Jesus was occasion for hope in occupied Israel and for the early Christians under the domination of Rome. The Bible refers to Jesus as the light that the darkness could not overcome.
Many of us have seen 2016 as an especially dark year. An astounding number of legendary figures, people we looked up to, have died: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Harper Lee, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, Muhammed Ali, Elie Wiesel, to name just a few. Terrifying treatment of the Lakota Water Protectors in North Dakota turned officials who are supposed to provide safety into dangerous adversaries. The desolation of Aleppo has left the world stunned, not knowing how we should respond. For many in the United States, the results of the November election and a foreign country’s very likely interference in it foretell dark times to come.
If ever there was a time when we need the hope that Christmas symbolizes, it might be now. Hope is the belief that something better lies ahead. Hope is the belief that the darkness of winter, the darkness of world tragedy, will pass—that just as there was a new baby in Bethlehem, a light that could not be quenched, there is a light ahead for us.
But hope, as President Obama famously wrote, “is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path….Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” Grownup Jesus, not the baby of hope in the stable, also expected us to be the ones to create a better world. He told us that we are the ones who have to feed the poor and provide shelter to the homeless, to the refugee. We are the ones who must visit the criminal in prison. He told his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
Some of us in the US have placed our hope for a better country in the President-Elect. Some of us are going to miss the current President to whom we looked for hope in the past. But really, hope for a better world lies with us. We are the ones who need to create change. The Jewish Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As you light a candle or switch on a string of lights this Christmas, remember that the light symbolizes hope in the darkness, and hope lies within each of us. You and I are the light of the world. And we are in this together.
© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved