“The Light shines in the darkness, [John says] and the darkness has not overcome it.” Here on this full moon Christmas, it is in the dark winter sky that the moon glows so bright. It is this darkest time of year that makes us Christians in the northern hemisphere so crave the light, candle light, Christmas lights, the Light of the world. It is because of the darkness, that we can see the stars and the Milky Way. The Light shines in the darkness, but God made the light and the darkness–so it says right there on the first page of our Bibles–so God is in the darkness as well as the light.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a celebration of light shining in the darkness at this time of year, called Chanukah. It is the Festival of Lights, though, not the Festival of Light, referring to the lights of the candles on the memorrah, symbolizing the 8 nights in which the lamp burned in the Temple and the oil did not run out, giving hope to a people under seige. Traditionally (writes Rabbi David Seidenberg) [Tikkun.org, Dec. 10, 2015], the candles of the menorah, or chanukiyah, must be set up in a line and be set apart from each other, so that their flames don’t overlap and become visually “like a torch.” What that technical detail means is they must be separated by darkness.
Is that not our experience of these Christmas candles or the lights on a Christmas tree? It is their lights shining in the darkness, the darkness between the lights, the darkness of wintertime, that makes them so sweet. So Rabbi Seidenberg writes,
…that is the actual experience of sitting and watching the candles. No one sits in front of the menorah thinking, “I can’t wait for these candles to grow so bright that there’s no more darkness.” Darkness is the matrix that makes the candles beautiful and sweet….Chanukah should be a celebration and savoring of the darkness, as well as an appreciation of the turning of the light.
We in the west tend to worship the light–the “bright lights, big city” draw our children, stores open 24-7 with parking lots flooded with light. The view of the earth at night from space over the past decades shows an increasing creep of light – light pollution, really, for we and the creatures of the earth are not made to live in constant light. We need the darkness for our internal systems and rhythms to work. We have literally become light crazy.
God is light, but that is not all God is. The Hebrew word shekhinah describes the immanence – the nearness, the presence– of God. “To speak in theological poetry,” Rabbi Seidenberg writes, “The darkness of the shekhinah is the womb-space that gives birth to the world.” It is in the darkness that our eyes pick up the signals to tell our organs and glands that it’s time to renew, to ramp up the growth of cells. It is in the darkness of the womb that eggs are fertilized and implanted and babies grow. It is in the darkness of winter, in the darkness of the soil, that fungi and roots weave together and grow. The great 20th c. psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” By facing all that is within us, including all that we might rather not see, that is the hero’s journey that leads to enlightenment.
The grown man Jesus spoke about those who were blind and yet could see, and those who thought they weren’t blind but could not see. “It makes me wonder,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “how seeing has made me blind–by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot.” [Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 108]
So what should we be teaching about our festival of lights? [Rabbi Seidenberg writes of Chanukah] If the flames need to be nestled in darkness, if darkness nurtures the light, then Chanukah is a time when we are planting seeds of light. That is what the tiny flames of the Chanukah candles really look like, after all.
“Planting seeds of light.” That’s what our candles do as well. And this night, we are reminded that God has planted seeds of light in every human baby, in each one of us, in fact, and in the darkness of the world, we are to grow and blossom and become food and drink for one another and for the whole world. That is what this meal is about. As God came to live among us, to break bread and drink wine, to offer up God’s own body for our healing and hope, so we too are to become God’s body and blood, wrapped in a woman’s womb and then in swaddling cloths, laid in a manger, growing in wisdom and stature, walking the fields and streets of the city. Light shining in the darkness, planting seeds of light. “Whether it is a seed in the ground,” Taylor writes, “a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” The new birth begins here, tonight, in the darkness. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark