The holidays, so many different things to so many of us, are above all a season of light.
Homes and streets, on December nights, are wonderlands of illumination. Lighted Hanukkah candles. Bright Christmas tree strings. Brilliant front yard displays, each more grand than the next, decking lawns and rooftops with red-nosed Rudolphs and blazing Santas.
For worshippers around the world, soft, consoling light fills grand and spiritual spaces, from humble Unitarian churches to ornate Catholic cathedrals, from living rooms to temples.
“They made search and found only one cruse of oil,” the Talmud, Shabbat 21b says, “yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days.”
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid,” the King James Version, Luke 2:9, reports in the Christmas origin story.
We are mostly a spiritual nation, whether we observe our faith regularly (or think about it) or only check in on special occasions, but like religion, light, such an ancient thing, touches our deepest emotions. It can blind or reveal truth, annoy or soothe, sustain or give pause, signify wonderment, terror or profound rebirth and universal connection.
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand,” Romans 13:12 says. “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.”
This has not been an easy holiday season. Uncertainty tests our national character and spirit. Tribal wounds and fears and divisions have darkened this December like few others in recent years.
Yet there is light. We enjoy domestic peace. Despite all of our differences, most of us still yearn to find common ground with one another.
We are so much more than the sum of our many sparks in the darkness.
Despite our sacrifices, most of us still have goodwill to spare for those who have sacrificed far more in less fortunate parts of the planet.
We live in a country where freedom of religion and the ability to publicly practice it are democratic givens. From the first English settlers fleeing religious persecution, immigrants of every stripe and nationality have looked to America by the millions. Though our political rhetoric may not always reflect it, the Statue of Liberty still lifts her lamp beside our golden door.
And though hope is not what it was, it is said that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and Christmas is an appropriate moment in life to do that. Its light can be used to distract or help us see the world in a different, perhaps better way.
That light can be used to read a book, see our loved ones in a soft glow of forgiveness and love, assist us on a walk down a twisting, narrow path with which we are unfamiliar, or be a beacon to those who are lost.
It can cheer us in the dimness of the shortest days of the year. The light may remind us of a loved one, a beloved friend, a special Christmas gift, or offer a flash of illumination of what is best in each other: charity, love, acceptance, fairness, justice, decency.
Light is welcoming, and at this time of year, it welcomes good cheer and camaraderie, a coming together of separated families and friends.
When we step into that light, we can regain our moorings. We can see ourselves, our communities, our nation, our world and our role in the bigger picture. We can see this season, in all its ancient and modern iterations.
Like a Christmas tree, like a menorah, like the constellations of the night sky, we are so much more than the sum of our many sparks in the darkness.
Today, forget, for a moment, the trials of life in a complicated age. Admire your tree. Walk at dusk. Find a rising star to guide you. Light a candle. Put on the armor of light.