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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

282: in the midst of great darkness we are confident we can get light and more light and more light

Day 282: December 23rd 2020

This season of winter darkness offers ancient lessons of hope and renewal. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.

“I have spent some long, scary nights waiting for the sun to come up. There have also been some long, barren seasons when I feared the sap would never rise again,” Barbara Brown Taylor, an author and Episcopal priest, reflected. “The hardest thing is to keep trusting the cycle, to keep trusting that the balance will shift again even when I can’t imagine how. So far it has.”

For millenniums, during these months of darkness, we have turned to rituals and stories to remind one another of hope and deeper truths.

All over the world, celebrations of light dot the winter darkness like stars. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs celebrate Diwali, a five-day festival of light’s victory over darkness. December in the Christian calendar marks the season of Advent, or waiting for salvation in the birth of Jesus.

Since ancient times we have created rituals to imitate a desired outcome. One of the oldest such practices is the act of lighting fire to call back the sun. It was always my favorite part of Midnight Mass to see the “new fire” outside the church on on a dark and freezing winter night. New fire equalled new light and hope.

The Iranian tradition of Yalda began some 2,500 years ago, rooted in the Zoroastrian practices of ancient Persia. On the winter solstice families gather for a feast and surround themselves with candles, eat pomegranates and nuts, and recite poetry, often by the Persian master Hafez, said Omid Safi, professor of Iranian studies at Duke University who celebrates the night with his family.

“It is a beautiful way of assuring you that you have lived through long nights before,” he said. “It is precisely at the point that the night is longest and darkest that you’ve actually turned a corner.”

Medieval Persian writings suggested that if one could not afford a feast, it is enough to bring a flower, he said. “Look for the smallest bit of beauty around you,” Dr. Safi explained. “That very much resonates today, at a time where it seems like the mega-systems are all broken or falling apart, to return your gaze to the small.”

In ancient Israel, the hot and dry summer was a more dangerous time than the winter, which brought much needed rain, said Benjamin D. Sommer, professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet around the solstice, ancient Jewish and Canaanite peoples most likely celebrated light rituals common across the Northern Hemisphere, he said.

Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, likely emerged from that general practice and the commemoration of the Maccabean revolt of the second century B.C., which re-established Jewish worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, he said, with rabbis later stressing spiritual themes of light and darkness. In later Jewish mystical literature, writers explored the idea that the primeval light of creation returns in Hanukkah celebration.

“It is a holiday that says, from a little bit of light in the midst of great darkness we are confident we can get light and more light and more light, which is what is happening with the menorah over eight days,” Dr. Sommer said.

In the Chinese conception of time, the winter solstice is the apex of yin energy and the destructive forces of fall and winter, said Jonathan Pettit, assistant professor of Chinese religions at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

On the solstice in early medieval China, Daoist priests would intercede to the gods, who gathered in the wintry part of the heavens to judge people’s deeds, he said.

“The winter solstice marks the point in time where the generative and creative powers of our universe start to return and grow again,” he said. “It is the other end of a dyadic power of yin and yang that balance and rebalance each other every cycle through the seasons.”

The great irony of winter is that the moment darkness is greatest is also the moment light is about to return. Each year the winter solstice comes with the promise that the next day will be brighter.

“The stars are especially beautiful in the wintertime,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, the pope’s official astronomical institute, which dates back to the Renaissance as part of the scientific tradition of the Catholic Church.

In a year that stripped life to bare fundamentals, the natural world has become our shared story. Seasons have offered the rare reminder that the world moves on even as our sense of time has blurred. Spring blossoms offered hope amid the first wave of Covid-19 deaths. The heat of summer brought unrest and social awakening. Fall’s colors brightened the shortening days and political turmoil.

Now winter is here, and in colder climates, signs of life can be hard to find. The sun disappears, trees lose their leaves, animals hibernate. It reveals humans as creatures who need food and shelter and community, and who are mortal.

Stories and memory and spirit can go on. The most important thing is to hold that tiny spark of life, if it is in a bud, in a seed, that is our work, to hold on to life, so when spring comes back, there can be growth. If you fail at that, spring doesn’t matter. That seems like a Covid teaching to me.”

On her farm in rural northeast Georgia, Ms. Taylor, the author and Episcopal priest, stacked wood for a solstice bonfire. Winter is a time to cover the compost heap so worms can get busy turning leftovers into soil, she said, and to plant a ground cover crop like crimson clover to nourish the garden while it rests. The farm taught the repeating cycle of light and dark, she said.

“I’ve stopped trying to handle the darkness. I let the darkness handle me instead,” she said. “Most of the time all it wants to do is hold me for a while — slow me down, keep me from running, cover me up long enough to remember that being in the dark doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It means I’m alive, and this is part of the deal.”


Now is the time to know

That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider

A lasting truce with yourself and God.

Now is the time to understand

That all your ideas of right and wrong

Were just a child's training wheels

To be laid aside

When you finally live

With veracity

And love.

Hafiz is a divine envoy

Whom the Beloved

Has written a holy message upon.

My dear, please tell me,

Why do you still

Throw sticks at your heart

And God?

What is it in that sweet voice inside

That incites you to fear?

Now is the time for the world to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time

For you to compute the impossibility

That there is anything

But Grace.

Now is the season to know

That everything you do

Is sacred.

Now is the Time

- Hafez


In the Bleak Midwinter James Taylor

Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson - Winter Song

The Longest Night Peter Mayer

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