Light the Light: Winter Solstice and Chanukah
December 19th, 2011
Of Course You Can Come
by Mark Nepo
When a friend’s brother-in-law passed away, her sister had a call while preparing for the funeral. It was a Jewish woman living 300 miles away who asked if she could attend the funeral. Her sister was taken aback, not by the request, but by the surprise of how far her husband’s life had reached. She said, “Of course you can come, but please, tell me why you want to?”
The Jewish woman spoke with a tremble through a thick German-Yiddish accent, “I read in his obituary that he was one of the first three soldiers to liberate Dachau at the end of the war.” There was a pause, “I was a little girl then, weighing only 28 pounds, naked and limping. I was shot in the foot for taking some water to drink.” There was another pause, “And when those three soldiers entered the camp, we were all stunned. And seeing us children, naked and starving, they took off their shirts and covered us.” Now they both fell into a deep silence. The Jewish woman continued, “I always wanted to thank them, but never knew who they were.” And so the little girl from Dachau drove 300 miles to stand at the dead soldier’s grave and to embrace his widow.
How are we to understand a story like this? Does it tell us that acts of kindness and the gratitude they engender outlast decades and oceans and continents? Does it tell us that kindness like the song of a blood red bird will be answered long after the bird has died? Does it tell us that the smallest effort to restore dignity can save a soul from degradation? Yes. Yes. And yes. Like the one bead of light, after weeks of light, that causes a flower to finally open, the bead of kindness that is compelled from us, against all reservation, will open others to themselves more than we may ever know.
These reflections are excerpts from several books, including a new book of poems, Surviving Has Made Me Crazy, CavanKerry Press, and a new book of spiritual non-fiction, Facing the Lion, Being the Lion: Inner Courage and Where It Lives, Red Wheel/Conari Press. For more info, please visit www.MarkNepo.com .
I could not describe the inter-faith component of UCOM’s theology better than this. We intend to be light-bringers, acting out by our lives and our deeds some of these traditional expressions of the holidays and holy days that reflect the coming of light after a long period of almost insufferable night.
The Winter Solstice celebrated on December 20 in our part of the world is the longest night of the year. A time in the darkness for reflection on loss and loneliness, a meditative celebration of the dawning of light after the long night has passed, and a renewal of hope for a brighter tomorrow—for shorter nights and longer days until the next cycle begins at the Summer Solstice, this special day symbolizes the faith and the purpose UCOM intends in our little corner of the world. A connection with ourselves and one another, family and community and global village, the day represents our desire to build up one another, to form relationships, to empathize with people regardless of their current circumstances, needs or assets.
Perhaps the clearest picture of UCOM’s solstice sense is the portion I emphasized in Mark Nepo’s meditation above. We really believe the light will shine again in the lives of those who are shattered by trauma and shivering in the cold darkness of the long winter night. We believe by each of our little efforts to restore dignity, to provide for the moment, to give a fleeting glimpse of hope for some nearby tomorrow, we are saving a soul from degradation. That is, according to UCOM’s purpose in our Articles of Incorporation, the reason we exist, “to carry out the work of Jesus Christ that Jesus entrusted to us.” This is a Christian viewpoint that transcends any one religion—all of the religions for that matter—and baptizes a human desire to do right to one another with a Divine mandate and promise that this is our way of being pleasing to The One.
Close on the heels of the Winter Solstice this year is another Festival of Light, the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, which this year begins on Tuesday, December 21. At my house we celebrate Chanukah in very simple ways. Of course, we light the candles each of the nights of the season; we say or hear the simple, beautiful prayers; and I spend the half hour as the candles burn meditating on little ways that I might bring light into my heart, my home and my world. We also make it a point to eat latkes (fabulous fried potato pancakes and other foods associated with the celebration).
UCOM as an agency doesn’t specifically celebrate Chanukah or Winter Solstice, though we cheerily wish all of our neighbors Happy Holidays in whatever language and holy day is appropriate for them. We are welcomers and celebrators of everything that makes life better for our neighbors. The beauty of Chanukah, though, symbolizes so many of the spiritual attributes to which UCOM aspires—thankfulness for the miracles and amazing surprises of life, commemoration of heroes who give themselves as sacrifice or role models for others, the provision of a Creator and Sustainer who is with us when we are desperate, and again…the light.
At UCOM we seek to be what we believe all people at our best are—God’s candles, lit with and from the Divine and brightening the ways of all those who come to us. Offering the light of hope, peace, joy and love; shining with integrity and true empathy; and speaking loudly for those whose voices have been long silenced, these are the responsibilities that UCOM is honored to embrace.
High Time for Inter-faith Understanding
As you can see, the Light celebrations of this cold and often dismal season point to many of the same values and desires in people of diverse faith traditions. We all follow our divergent paths to a very similar understanding of God and human relations. Most people want the same things: hope, peace, love, joy…and above all the Light that enlightens our minds, illumines our spirits and brightens our lives. It is this universal need to which UCOM intends to add our little part so that people may not only receive their basic needs, but may also gain renewed faith in God, themselves and humankind.
Light the lights.