Many of the holiday stories that we celebrate with joy and glee this month force us to remember a time of darkness or suffering.
Christmas emerges from the cries of mothers mourning their slaughtered babies. Hanukkah is a cleanse after war and oppression. The celebration of the winter solstice stems from the longest period of darkness on earth. Celebrating this holiday reminds us that whatever pain or darkness surrounds us now, there will be dancing in our future.
These celebrations are not based on tales that deny the pain of life. These celebrations remind us that death is part of the human experience. Uncertainty is our fate as fragile human beings in a universe much larger and more complex than we can fully comprehend. Evil is aggressive and painful. Courage is needed to create a world of justice and peace.
Unfortunately, these myths, stories, messages and witnesses of the faith are used to justify blind acquiescence to tradition. This is the very thing that they were written to thwart. In this season of pandemic, seismic economic upheaval and new emerging family configurations, religious celebrations are more necessary than ever.
However, in recent years, religion has become a symbol of division. Believers are presumed to be judgmental. Attending worship services of any kind has literally become a decision that can have life and death implications. Ironically, the messages of religious tradition myths were made for times like these.
Within the framework of Christian history there is a description of a vulnerable family and the danger of popular prejudice. This story of redemption becomes relevant to those who see the radical nature of asserting purpose and fate to those others would dismiss as unimportant or insignificant. The emergence of a savior was threatened as the savior was to be born to a young woman who claimed alternative sexuality and unusual family relationships. Women, men, children and those who have been marginalized can be reflected in a family’s struggle and the triumph of perseverance.
Hannukah is a powerful story filled with the pathos and passion of a fight against evil, political pettiness and genocide. It also comes across as Judah Maccabee’s critique of lack of courage and an exhortation of people of faith to stand up for their beliefs and values in the face of an overwhelming sense of futility.
The word of the prophet pierces the indulgence of acquiescence and the justification of futility. Political minorities, raped communities, and rejected ethnic communities can see themselves in Maccabee’s fiery speaker and physical resistance to evil and oppression in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
The Winter Solstice arises from the earth’s assertion of the elasticity of time, nature’s redemption, and the power of transition.
It is the astronomical moment when the sun reaches the tropic of Capricorn. December 21 marked our shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. It is an annual story and experience that reminds us that we are in an ever-changing environment. The Earth, its systems, and time itself have an internal mechanism of recovery that we can and must join together to maintain balance.
We, fellow travelers on Earth, can see in these celebrations of dance and harmony an affirmation of the importance of the efforts of those who call for respect for the world.
All of these religious celebrations need to be remembered in their historical context, their critique of parochialism and their inspiration and celebration of life experiences on many levels. Now is the time to hear these stories in community and to be challenged and inspired by their universal and particular importance.
No matter what state we find ourselves in celebrating these stories, it is the joy of the world. Celebrate the light.
In our silent nights, feed the sparks of rebellious optimism of the people of the light ramp against the cold darkness of the pessimistic predictions of those who bask in the darkness. Happy Holidays.
Reverend Floyd Thompkins, of Novato, is pastor of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Marin City and CEO of the Justice and Peace Foundation.