We’ve come out of an election season again this year that purported to be the most important election of our lifetimes. Until the next one. Apocalyptic framing of the crises we face makes everything seem existential — a contest between good and evil with life-or-death consequences.
This is rarely true, regardless of how hot our political passions run. We always pick ourselves up and return to the work of persisting or resisting, depending on where we are in the power grid at the time.
December brings spiritual insights about light and darkness from two religions’ holidays: Hanukkah and Christmas. (I should also mention the Hindu, Sikh and Jain holy day, Diwali, which happened in October this year. Diwali is called the festival of lights. It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, freedom over oppression, and enlightenment over ignorance.)
Hanukkah recalls the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had humiliated the Israelites by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem with the blood of a pig. When the sanctification of the Temple took place, only enough oil was found for the ceremonial lamps to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days. Thus, the nine-candled menorahs (eight for the eight days, and one helper candle used to light the others).
Christmas lights — white and colored both — are everywhere, it seems: on Christmas trees, Advent wreaths, windowsills, front-yard trees and bushes. Jesus is called “the Light of the world.” He came to chase away the darkness of sin. We light our little candles on Christmas Eve from the Christ candle, reminding us that we too must share the light in a darkened world.
Light and darkness always coexist. Yet every contrast isn’t as stark as noon and midnight or even sunrise and sunset. We have dawn and dusk, too. If you didn’t have your watch on, you might not know whether twilight hours bode more light to come or less. So, we might ask, “Is this moment,” as Valarie Kaur puts it, “the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb?”
The modern Hebrew word mashber means crisis. It comes from an original meaning of “birthing stool.” In other words, we should always be looking for hope in the midst of whatever despair we feel, new life in the shadow of death. Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur of Paris, France, says that mashber “is a time of anger and hope, death and life. It’s the birthing of something new, and no one knows what that’s going to be.”
Politics is something but not everything. Culture is the underlying driver of politics. And religion is an important component of culture. People of faith must remember that God is the true mystery of the world. Therefore, surprising judgments and unexpected breakthroughs are possible no matter how bright or bleak the affairs of state. We can and must shine our little light of hope and point the way to paths of peace.
Let’s walk that way together.