Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seeing In The Dark

This sermonic exploration was originally delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA on Sunday, December 23rd 2012.

Okay.  So I know that Deborah really already covered this, but I want to go over it again.

It’s thought that about four and a half billion years ago a celestial object about the size of modern-day Mars, slammed into the then quite young earth.  Scientists call this object Theia, after the mythical Greek titan who gave birth to the Moon goddess, Selene, because it’s thought that this “giant impact” did, in fact, create our moon.  It’s also thought that it was this impact, or one quite like it, that tilted our planet’s axis to its current roughly 24 degrees.
And because of that tilt, as Deborah said earlier, for part of the year the northern hemisphere is closer to the sun – making it warmer with longer days and shorter nights – and for part of the year it’s further away – making it colder with the days and nights reversed.  She mentioned how folks nearer to the equator experience roughly even days and nights all year long.  In more northern and southern latitudes folks experience days and nights that never end.  In fact, in Alaska, the sun goes down on November 31st and remains below the horizon for 67 days until it re-appears on January 24th. During this time there is a small amount of light each day – but it’s what most of us would call “twilight.”  On December 21st, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice Deborah mentioned, this “twilight” lasts just about 2 hours.
So while it’s clear that this affects people in different places to different extents, there’s no question that our largely northern-hemisphere influenced culture has developed in its DNA a memory of this light/dark cycle.  And I’d love to say that our more primitive ancestors experienced the time of short days and long nights as frightening or, at least, really mysterious and, so, they began to develop light ceremonies to encourage the sun to return.  I’d like to say this because it sounds great, and it’s certainly the story I grew up with, but there’s one small problem.  I keep discovering that our “primitive” ancestors weren’t as ignorant as I’d been led to believe.
I was going to start this sermon by describing what it would have been like if the world were flat which, as we all know, was the dominant belief well into the Middle Ages.  In fact, Columbus had problems launching his famous expedition because folks were afraid that their investment was going to sail off the edge of the world.
Well . . . not so much, it turns out.  Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, postulated a spherical earth back in the 5th century BCE and Aristotle affirmed it in 330 BCE.  By the time Columbus came around it’s been pretty well established that the idea that the world was flat was held by pretty much none of the educated people.  True, there were a lot of rather uneducated people in those days, but when it comes to the teachings of science, there really still are.
And it turns out that our most ancientancestors weren’t all that much in the dark about . . . well . . . being in the dark.  As far back as 3000 BCE – what’s known as the Neolithic era – at least some of us humans knew enough about what was happening to erect a bunch of giant stones in such a way that the sun set above a particular stone on the evening of the winter solstice.  That would have been a heck of a lot of work to mark that particular moment if they didn’t know what it was about.
A better explanation may be that they did recognize the solstice as the tipping point from lengthening nights to lengthening days and the fires and candles were not so much to encourage the return of the sun but, rather, to celebrate it.  These celebrations may have been born not so much in fear as in relief.

But whatever the origins and the original intent may have been, there are a lot of festivals at this time of year that honor the coming of light.  Wikipedia notes thirty-four winter solstice festivals – from the proto-Scandanavia’s Beiwe to the Roman’s Brumalia, from the Pakastani Chawmos to, well, Christmas.    There’s Dongzhi, Goru, Hannukkah, Hogmanay, Inti Raymi, Junkanoo, Lá an Dreoilin, Makara Sankrati, Maruaroa o Takurua, and . . . well . . . in seminary they told us never to use lists in our sermons.  (People apparently tune out after a while.)

My point is just that it seems human and natural to mark this time:  this time when the nights are so long and the days so short; this time when darkness – the good and the ill of it, its fearsomeness and its freedom – hold sway over the light – which has its own good and bad aspects, of course.  Throughout the whole of human history and across this diverse globe we human beings seem to have a need to mark times such as this.

And I think that the real reason – the deep, down, core, essential reason – is that such times as this do not only occur “out there.”  It’s not just the skies and the seasons that change and flow; it’s not just our external world that goes through cycles.  Our inner world does, too.

When Deborah and I were first talking about this service, she told me that she wanted to use something by Maurice Sendak.  We knew that this would be a multigenerational service and she said that no one quite captured the inner nighttime, if you will, of children better than Sendak.  Mickey, in In The Night Kitchen, is nearly cooked in the “morning cake.”  Max, in Where The Wild Things Are, travels to the very land of the Wild Things who love him so much that they want to eat him up.  And Pierre?  Pierre is actually eaten by the lion. 

And I really wish you could see the illustrations because Sendak drew a lion that just looks so . . .  proud of himself which, maybe you would be too if you’d just eaten a kid who was being such a pain in the neck.  “I don’t care.”  “I don’t care.”  “I don’t care.”  Utterly unpleasant little urchin.

But who among us – let’s be honest now – who among us hasn’t gone through our own “I don’t care” phase?  Who hasn’t had one of those really long nights that seems to go on forever?  One of those times when we’re just aching for the dawn and aren’t really sure we can wait all that much longer?  One of those times when we can’t see our own hand in front of our face, and certainly can’t see any help . . . or hope?

And maybe you know it, too . . . that feeling of being inside the lion’s belly.  Luckily not all of us have been there, but some of us have.  And others know people who have.

This longest-night-of-the-year stuff is not just something that happens “out there.”  It happens “in here,” too.  And I think that that’s the real reason we’ve put so much energy – as a human family – into these festivals of light and hope.  Not because our ancient ancestors feared that the sun would never rise again.  But because we still do.

So here’s my Yule-tide message for this year.  (And my message for Shab-e Chelleh, and for Soyal and Zagmuk too.  And let’s not forget We Tripantu, now either.)  The sun is coming back.  The light and the warmth are on their return.  Love and hope are expanding.  A new day dawns. 

And if not now, then trust that it all will.  And don’t trust it because I’ve said it.  (Although I’m generally pretty reliable about this sort of thing.)  And don’t trust it because pretty much all of humanity’s sacred books say that it is so.  (Although when you can get pretty much all of humanity to agree on something it’s a pretty good sign.)  

Instead, believe it because it’s been proved to be true – year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennia.  That’s why we light the festival fires.  That’s why we light the candles.  And that’s why we always will.

In Gassho,
Print this post


Pete Armetta said...

I think it's "human and natural" to mark this time, to dig in our heels, knowing with certainty the light will indeed be back, although the evidence may not show it.

Nice sermon and post, filled with hope which I always appreciate.

Martin said...

Actually, the seasons are affected by the change in the angle to the sun, not by the distance.

That said, I liked your sermon. I recently read your entire blog, and it's great to see you posting again.

I often find myself reminding myself that, despite what it feels like, this internal "night" will end and the "light will return. It always has in the past, and it will do so again. It can be really hard to believe that at times, but experience holds this to be true and that helps me have some hope that this time (whichever "this time" is) will be no exception.