Guest post by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole
I don’t recall how old I was when someone first told me we shouldn’t put up Christmas trees or otherwise celebrate Christmas because the holiday had pagan origins and anyway, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. If you grow up Adventist, you get exposed to opinions like these fairly early, even though such views were by no means mainstream in my church and were dismissed as foolishness by my very sensible Adventist family.
Even as a young person, it seemed to me that the timing of Christmas was far from an evil pagan plot or even an unhappy accident. True, nobody considered the date of Jesus’ birth important enough to record in Scripture, but I think the early church did exactly the right thing in holding their celebration of the Nativity at the end of December, and I think it was more than just an attempt to co-opt pagan midwinter holidays.
The image of light coming in the midst of our darkness is one of the most powerful spiritual pictures we humans have. Whether we’re lighting candles on the Advent wreath or the Hanukkah menorah, or burning a Yule log, or simply stringing up some coloured LEDs on the front of the house, we’re responding to a deep human urge to celebrate light — which is hope, and faith, and joy — when times are dark.
For those of us in northern climates this is especially true at midwinter. Now, to be honest, I don’t think of the winter solstice, or Christmas, or anytime around the end of December as “midwinter.” Because of our climate, where Christmases are often green but Easters are frequently white, I feel winter is barely beginning in December. My worst “midwinter blues” hit around mid-February when I think how far we’ve slogged through the ice and snow and how far we have yet to go.
But even in our late-starting, long-lasting Newfoundland winter, in a world illuminated by electric lights, I feel the burden of those dark early evenings, coming home from work with the sky already dark, waking up in morning darkness to get ready to do it all again. I understand why our ancestors, less shielded from the rhythms of the natural world, felt the need to light candles and celebrate at the turning of the year, when the days began, imperceptibly, to lengthen again. When the light returned.
God’s promise of light in darkness is for everyone, everywhere, all the time. And of course it’s true that as a Christian, unlike a Jewish friend lighting Hanukkah candles or my pagan friend burning her Yule log (or a Hindu friend celebrating Diwali, at a different time of the year in a different corner of the world), I believe the truest and fullest expression of God’s light came into the world on whatever night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Son of God, love’s pure light. Whether He was born in the bleak midwinter or in spring or fall, He was the light that lights everyone as He comes into the world.
But the fact that I believe this and others don’t, doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m right and everyone else is wrong when they light their candles and logs and fireworks and LED lights, wherever and whenever and whyever they do it. If we close the stable door and say that only in that one room, on that one night, was the Light of the World fully present and incarnate … well, light will still leak out under and around the stable door. Light is like that. Grace is like that. God’s presence is everywhere, no matter how we try to shut Him away or box Him up. He is present in every light that shines in darkness. The humblest candle burning on a midwinter night speaks of the hope He brings … and so, in a faint and faraway fashion, does even the light-up, blow-up, tacky glowing Santa on the lawn of a neighbour who professes no faith in any god but the God of Shopping, and worships nowhere but at the mall.
We light lights because we believe, or because we want to believe. And light calls forth what’s best in us — hope, faith, joy — giving us hints of the true Light, that shines in darkness and can never be put out.
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