(Advent and Hanukkah begin on Dec. 2 this year.)
When the year’s shadows are heaviest, when nights become long and cold, when feelings of self-doubt, despair, and death draw near, we light candles to push back the darkness that surrounds us.
The light of stars, the roaring bonfires, the calm flames of candles remind us of people we’ve loved, dreams we’ve followed over the years, and the guidance of wise teachers. They call us to reclaim what stirs our passions, what brings us energy and meaning. They challenge us to care for those among us for whom the light has grown dim.
We set aside the burdens of life and let our hearts fill with light and with compassion for others, because when the light comes, it comes for all. Each night I light a candle and let dreams return that I have put off for too long.
People find renewal of their faith in this dark season. Many use lights in their rituals of remembrance and rededication, like Christian candlelight services, Jewish Hanukkah, Hindu Diwali, and the African American celebration of community in Kwanzaa.
We celebrate the message, waiting beneath the holiday decorations, that despite the trauma of what has happened this year — bad jobs, no jobs, lost homes, struggles with health, the death of loved ones, the unrest in society — hope is not gone. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, glad news will come that we do not expect, the miraculous will happen, if we do not give in to despair and we work to keep the fires burning.
Some will return to the rituals of ancient traditions to find a fresh breath of spirit.
Others will find renewal outdoors, surrounded by mountains and forests. We will feel part of something greater than our individual lives, and stand in awe of nature’s majesty rising up above us. Although grief has pulled our lives apart, the transcendence of nature tells us that one day we will be okay.
In a couple of weeks, the Winter Solstice will signal the turning of winter back toward spring. Before then, in the movement of the natural world, the long hours of darkness encourage us to slow our rushing through the day to move at the meandering pace of the creeks. We feel the Presence of life around us as we watch the light glow on the top of the mountains, and reclaim the connection between our lives and the Spirit of creation.
The darkness does not do away with the light but completes it, just as grief completes our understanding of love.
The Sierra peaks in Yosemite will give little hint that they have noticed the sun’s subtle shift back towards the Northern Hemisphere, but Half Dome will hold the day’s light a bit longer.
Down in the valley, along the Merced River as it winds through the meadows in its winter clothing, the ouzel, John Muir’s favorite bird, swims under the water, hops up and down in the rapids, and sings its song of joy to the day’s fleeting warmth.
May you find a place this holiday season where the sacred fire in your heart is rekindled.