At this winter solstice, we celebrate the return of the light.
In defiance of the long darkness, we light our houses, burn candles and rejoice in the promise that, no matter how dark our lives become, the light will come. But before we leave the dark behind, we should remember to ask for its blessing.
Our desire for the light is profound. We all experience loss and pain and sorrow. In these times of darkness, we yearn with all our being for light, for a way to see our path out of the darkness. But in our desire to move toward the light, we risk missing the gift of the darkness. And without that gift, the light we move into is impoverished.
As the poet John O’Donohue reminds us:
We desperately need a new and gentle light where the soul can shelter and reveal its ancient belonging. We need a light that has retained its kinship with the darkness. For we are sons and daughters of the darkness and of the light. … All creativity awakens at the primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm.
Although we often overlook it, our solstice rituals remind us of light’s kinship with darkness.
Christmas is the climax of the season of Advent, four weeks of sitting with our longing for the coming of the light in the form of a messiah who will lead us out of the dark. But the messiah who comes is not the powerful warrior-messiah we often fantasize will come and sweep away the darkness with a mighty sword. Instead, through the pain, mystery and all-too-physical messiness of labor and birth, the messiah comes in the vulnerability of a baby—a baby destined to live a human life marked by pain and suffering. The light that counterbalances darkness is the light of love and gentleness and vulnerability, and those characteristics are its power. It is a light that does not drive out the darkness, but transforms it.
We instinctively understand what light offers darkness. Anticipating the coming of the light gives us hope in our times of darkness. Vaclav Havel, no stranger to dark times, wrote beautifully of the importance of hope:
“Hope…is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. … Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”
Darkness without light turns to despair. Anticipating and celebrating the coming of the light helps us avoid getting stuck in darkness. And we don’t want to be stuck in darkness. Darkness is painful and confusing. So we rightly celebrate the solstice as evidence that the light will lead us out of the dark, that we can leave darkness behind.
But what is the darkness’s gift?
How does it bless the light? The solstice ceremonies give us clues about that, too.
Hanukah celebrates the rekindling of a sacred fire the Jews had kept burning on the altar in Jerusalem for hundreds of years—a fire that was a portal to the divine, that God had commanded be kept burning, but that had been extinguished when the temple was occupied. And although there was only enough sacred oil to burn the fire for one day, the fire burned for the entire eight days necessary to prepare more sacred oil.
But Hanukah doesn’t just celebrate the lighting of a fire. Hanukah celebrates the return of the light after a time of darkness, the persistence of light where everything tells us it should not last. Darkness and the fear of darkness make the light holy. Darkness blesses the light.
Buddhism’s First Noble Truth acknowledges that darkness is inevitable, that life includes suffering. But beyond simply accepting this, Buddhism recognizes that suffering bears a gift. Sogyal Rinpoche wrote that suffering “can teach us about compassion. If you suffer, you will know how it is when others suffer. And if you are in a position to help others, it is through your suffering that you will find the understanding and compassion to do so.”
Nature teaches the same lesson. We seldom pay attention to the light in the middle of the day, but when it dances with darkness at dawn or dusk, its beauty stops us in our tracks and we are grateful for the sun that warms us and lights our days. The stars shine all day long, but we don’t see them until it is dark. Without the dark, we would not know the light.
The poet William Blake said that “colors are the wounds of light.”
It is true: without light being broken apart, we would not see color; the world would be a dreary wash of light. The same is true of life: beauty arises not out of unending happiness, but out of the dance between light and darkness—between joy and grief, contentment and striving, longing and attaining.
So, at this moment when the darkness is greatest, I wish light for us all, but light that knows its kinship with the darkness. May our darkness always carry the seed of hope, and may our light be gentle, and just broken enough to color our lives.
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Assistant Editor: Tifany Lee/Editor: Bryonie Wise
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