Spirituality & Theology, Practice & Voice, BeyondBelief

Light in the Darkness

It’s a dark time in the western hemisphere. Literally.

There was only 9 hours and 43 minutes of sunlight on December 17. The days have become shorter and the nights longer since June. In ancient times, at this point in the season, people were terrified that the sun was dying. They didn’t understand what was happening, and they invented elaborate rituals to try to reignite the sun.

Rituals of the Sun

In China, the emperor would ascend the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and offer burnt sacrifices as an intermediary between heaven and earth, to keep the sun from burning out. In Peru, the Incan Priests, high in the Andes mountains, held a religious ceremony in honor of the sun god Inti. It was for the purpose of tying the sun to the earth so it could not escape.

In Machu Picchu to this day, there stands a large column of stone which is known in the traditional language as the “hitching post of the sun” and it was used in solstice ceremonies for tethering the sun to the earth.

Natalis Solis Invictus

And then there’s ancient Rome, where they had a celebration called Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, which means “The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” that is sun spelled S-U-N. This ceremony, the birthday of the S-U-N sun, took place on—what day do you think? December 25th, and it incorporated the rituals of Sun gods of various peoples from across the Roman Empire at the time.

It incorporated the Syrian sun god Elah-Gabal; it also, included Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian; and Mithras—the Persian god. Under Emperor Aurelian, the Birthday of the Sun on December 25th became an empire-wide holy day. And it was his attempt to unify the people of the empire under a single holiday—without forcing any of them to reject their local gods. 

But then, with the growing popularity of Christianity, in the 3rd century, Jesus of Nazareth began receiving much of the same recognition that had previously been given to the sun gods, and soon Jesus became a part of the tradition of Solis Invictus on December 25th.

A few decades later under Emperor Constantine, the other deities were subsumed under the worship of Jesus as the son (S-O-N) of god and as Christianity became the official religion of the empire, December 25th became the birthday of the son S-O-N of God. And that’s how December 25th became the day recognized as Jesus’ birthday. Scholars have no earthly idea what actual day Jesus was born. But the winter solstice is the perfect time to celebrate the birth of new hope. The birth of “the light of the world.”

The Famine Months

These days we don’t remember that starvation was common during the first months of the winter for much of human history. January through April (in the northern hemisphere) were known as “the famine months”. It was dark, it was cold, it was a scary time.

If you’ve ever experienced a dark night of the soul, or hit bottom in your life, you know all too well what it feels like to fear that your life is coming to an end or at least, your life as you knew it, has come to an end. And if you’ve made it through a dark night of the soul experience, you also know how great it feels when you finally have that first glimmer of hope. The first day of hope after a long period of darkness is a wonderful day.

If you’ve ever experienced a diagnosis that changed everything, or hit bottom as an alcoholic, or found yourself unimaginably deep in debt… Or without a place to live… If you lost a loved one unexpectedly or too soon… Or experienced assault of some kind….

You know what its like to be so far down that we cannot imagine any way out. The Bible uses the metaphor of walking thru the valley of the shadow of death. The valley is said to be so dark, that a person can only see far enough to put one foot in front of the other.

The Return of Light

Christmas represents that first return of light…and hope.

We all have moments in life which mark time into before and after. Before and after…the car crash. Before and after…the divorce. Before and after…the fire…the tornado…the flood. Before and after…the stroke…the miscarriage. Before and after…the pandemic

And when something that consequential happens, some part of our life has ended.

Even if it wasn’t an actual death, something has died.

Religions try to teach us how to make sense of such moments.

We can find similar inspiration in nature, which reminds us that life does not happen linearly, it happens in cycles. Nature reminds us that there’s no such thing as a permanent descent…that keeps going down. If we can hang on, the cycle will eventually change. So even when it can seem like the light of hope is fading for good, nature reminds us that no matter what we are experiencing, this too shall pass…things will get better.

Things won’t stay the same and they won’t go backward, but they will cycle around. That’s one reason why suicide is so tragic…because it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All things shift with time, but death robs us—and the people around us—of the possibility. Even though it can feel at times as if death is the only way out, nature reminds us that life is always turning…and the sun will come out tomorrow.

If you’re experiencing a dark time right now…know, with confidence that this too shall pass…not because the Bible says so—although it does—but because nature shows us over and over again.

But the point is not to wait for the difficulty to be over.

Embracing the Dark

Part of the spirituality of grief is finding ways to embrace the dark times in our lives.

Darkness is one of our most important teachers. My colleague Rev. Marilyn Sewell once wrote that in our modern world we are led to believe we really can have perfect lawns and wrinkle free faces, we can have a life with no anxiety or loneness or depression, that we can have kids who sit still and listen like polite little automatons. We are bombarded by all of these promises and all these ways of fixing things. But this kind of thinking only breeds dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

What is real is that we are human…we are part of nature. We have all kinds of feelings and all kinds of experiences and some are pleasant and beautiful and some are decidedly unpleasant and fearful. We spend a lot of energy trying to convince ourselves and one another that life is something other than what it is. Part of life is the darker moments—it’s not abnormal, it’s life. All lives have their seasons.

The Story of Nasrudin

Do know the story about Nasrudin who was outside on his hands and knees looking around under a street light when a friend walked up? “What are you doing?” his friend asked. “I’m looking for my key. I’ve lost it.” So his friend got down on his knees too and they both searched for a long time in the dirt beneath the light. Finding nothing, his friend finally turned to him and asked, “Where exactly did you lose it?” Nasrudin replied, “Well, I lost it in the house, but there’s more light out here.”

We have a tendency to run to the light side of life. But the key that unlocks the door to what we need is sometimes in the dark.

This idea was brought home to me by a story of an 85 year old widower who came to see Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. Dr. Remen is both an oncologist and psychiatrist who works with cancer patients. The man came to see her after a long, agonizing period during which he had to decide whether to have surgery to remove cancer from one lobe of his lung. The doctors told him that surgery at his age, in his physical condition, was risky, but without it, the cancer would spread.

Staring the possibility of imminent death in the face caused him to live not just in fear, but also with a deep sadness and confusion. In that difficult place, for a long time, he was having trouble gathering the will to have the surgery and was confused and disheartened about what to do. But by the time he had come to see Dr. Remen, he had decided to go ahead with the surgery and wanted to know if she knew any things he could do to promote healing after the surgery.

After she talked to him about diet, exercise, acupuncture and some Chinese herbs, she asked him what it was the finally gave him the clarity and strength to go ahead with this difficult decision. He told her of a day dream he had a few weeks prior.

He had been sitting in his chair, reading his paper and almost nodding off. It seemed to him that his wife had come to sit with him. She looked much as she had in the early days of their relationship, and as she looked at him he was struck by the love he could see in her eyes As they sat together he could feel his fear easing a little.

And then he noticed one of his oldest friends had also come into the room and was standing behind his wife’s chair. His face, too, reflected the love that had cemented their life-long friendship. He was smiling at his friend when he saw his brother standing beside him, His eyes filled with love too.

One by one, others whose lives had touched his in a loving way were there, family, friends, teachers, students, children and grandchildren and even the family pet. It had been a long life, and in the end, there were more than 50 or 60 of them, crowding into his living room and even into the hall. In this way he had known that his life had been of value to many others and found that it was of value still.

No longer alone with his decision, he felt fear release him. And he knew then that surgery was the right thing to do, no matter if he survived it or not. Dr. Remen describes the tears forming in her eyes as she looked at this lovely old gentleman. She said, “How beautiful!” To which he replied, “Yes, and the thing is that most of these people are dead now.” He smiled at her look of surprise. “I guess anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.”

He nodded his head…and sat quietly, smiling to himself. Basking, no doubt, in the glow of that moment in his living room, when after a long dark time of descent, morning had broken, once again, on the first day of hope.

Growing out of the soil of that darkness was something that had been planted inside him for a long time. He came thru that experience knowing more fully what his life was about. As the Buddhists like to say, darkness is not our problem; our rejection and denial of darkness is the real problem. It’s often through our greatest difficulties that we find the world’s everlasting and unquenchable light.

Happy Solstice—Merry Christmas—Happy Hannukah—In this season, may the light of hope and good tidings be born anew in your life and in your soul. 

Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar is the Senior Minister at All Souls Church in Tulsa. A modified version of his sermon was delivered by Rev. Barbara Prose on Sunday, December 18, 2022, in Marlin’s absence.

Celebrate the return of the light at our three Christmas Eve Candlelight services! Services at 4:30, 6 and 7:30 pm.

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