These are the holidays. Hanukkah last week, Christmas now. We may complain about our errands but we enjoy the festivity and the light that these holidays bring to our dark December.
In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Ancient man feared the sun had died, and we still fear the darkness. As winter begins there is a pull from deep in our bones that makes us seek light and answers.
So in December we try to outrun darkness. We go to the Caribbean or to sun lamps or we pursue spirits, both religious and distilled. Like our ancestors we want the light to return so we drive to the bright lights at the mall and we sacrifice our savings.
But in fearing the dark we may be resisting something necessary, maybe even something holy. The December holidays are about darkness after all, and the mystery felt just at the edge of light. And, as is often the case in spiritual matters, there’s a paradox: In darkness we get the signs-- and the answers-- we'd never see in light.
I laugh at how many times in my life I have prayed for signs. In very difficult moments I have begged God for an envelope with my name on it. Maybe I watched too many episodes of Mission Impossible growing up, but part of me wants instructions that clearly spell out what I should do.
I know God doesn’t work that way, but I know I’m not alone in wanting him to. Some people flip coins or read their horoscope; others go to Tarot readers and keep psychics in business.
The part of the Christmas story that means the most to me is about the wise men, traveling on a hunch and their deep wanting. They had studied the sky for years and then they saw their sign.
In his poem, Journey of the Magi T.S. Eliot wrote: “At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches, with the voices singing in our ears, that this was all folly.”
Of course that’s the problem with star following. You just don’t know. We see this in the news. Stories of young men and women: some are heroes and others commit terrible crimes. Perhaps all following their stars. But you don’t know until you show up whether there’s going to be a baby or a bullet.
So how do we face the dark things in front of us now: global warming, war with no end and the daily crimes committed against our hearts?
The wise men’s example is about faith: We can study, we can consult with others and we can try to be wise men and women, but in the end we have to get on our camels and hope we’re doing good.
In December we cope in the most ancient of ways. We go toward light--to neon and to parties like our ancestors gathered at the bonfire. But what if we allowed some darkness? What if we dared ourselves to sit still and take a breath before we lit the tree? The darkness offers hidden gifts. After all, the wise men only got to see their star after they sat and waited in the dark.
This week the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Its cycle –and the darkness--is astronomical and holy. We need not fear it. That is why the Christmas song says: Let nothing you dismay.