Being Light and Seeing Light: A Winter Solstice Reflection

Effigy solstice
Each year, our neighbor Dave constructs an effigy to represent the darkness. Then, on the Winter Solstice, he burns it in a bonfire (of truly epic scope!). Many ancient cultures tended fires through the night to keep the darkness at bay.

Thursday, December 21, 2017   

Tonight is the Winter Solstice – the moment that the Northern hemisphere is tilted farthest from the sun, producing the longest night of the year. It’s not surprising that many festivals of light – Advent, Hannukah, Kwanzaa – are celebrated at the time of year in which we are plunged into the deepest darkness.

Some kids are afraid of the dark, but from the time I was a little girl, I have loved it. I loved pulling my blankets over my head and fussing around with them until the polyester fibers started emitting little sparks. I loved walking the road of Camp Glen Spey, electricity-less in the Delaware Water Gap, staring at the breadth and beauty of the night sky. I loved those rare occasions when we could plead my father into lighting the living room fireplace, and we’d turn out the lights and watch the flames. And I really, really loved power outages. Candles everywhere!

Maybe I was so entranced by the darkness because of my Celtic roots. Multiple Irish myths and celebrations honor the darkness that the winter Solstice brings. One practice was to light a good fire, sweep the house, unbar the door, and place the white, red or green coinneal mor na Nollag, the Christmas candle, on the table to welcome the stranger. In my grandmother Sullivan’s county, Limerick, the doors of houses were left open, and every cottage window featured a lit white candle. Children were walked up into the hills outside the village to wonder at the beauty of the fire twinkling in every home.

Recently, a friend from college commented to me that we’re living in dark times. He was very down, very frustrated. I noted to him that I think the Dark Ages and the Black Plaque had our times beat, but he wasn’t so sure. I was struck by the depth of his resignation and frustration. And I’ve been noticing that regardless of wherever people are on the spectrum of social, political and religious belief, there seems to be a dark anxiety afoot. What do we do?

In the Christian tradition in which I’m grounded, we proclaim the words of the Prophet Isaiah as we prepare ourselves to welcome the birth of Jesus at Christmas: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The light of our Advent wreaths builds with each passing week, reminding us that the one we proclaim the “light of the world” comes among us once again. The practices and prayers of this season invite us to be people of light – in our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods and schools.

But this path is not exclusive to the Christian community. The Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist traditions all speak of Divine light and our connection to it.  There is a story told about the death of Buddha. His distraught disciples asked him, “Blessed One: Who will be our teacher now?”  The Buddha’s last words were, “Be your own light.”   The holy Quran speaks of human hearts that are “clear like a shining lamp.” The Hindu Rig Vedas remind believers that, “The human body is the temple of God. One who kindles the light of awareness within gets true light.”

As we gather holly, yew and evergreens into our home, as we welcome the darkest day of the year, we might consider embracing ancient practices that pierce the darkness and make it not a source of fright but a source of wonder. What if we lit a fire in the hearth or the wick of a candle, a gesture of warmth and welcome to those who need our embrace? What if we took a moment as our Minnesota nights get chillier and clearer, to marvel at the night sky, and the vast universe that surrounds us, only visible because the sun has dipped beyond our horizon? What if we embraced some of the silence and peace that darkness often brings, either by opening ourselves to the stillness or by spending time alongside someone we care about, candles lighting our dinner or our livingroom? What if we spent time with the spiritual teachings of our own traditions, learning more about how they call us to light?

Tonight, the white coinneal mor na Nollag will grace the front window of the Vanni home. It will remind me in this longest night that we each can be light for, and see light in, one another.

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