As a student of religion, December is always a fascinating time for me. In America, we have culture wars surrounding Christmas, from battles over religious displays on government property, to arguments about whether stores should wish their customers a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” to the lesser asked question of why stores have any part in Christmas and other holidays to begin with.
I am usually tempted to get depressed and cranky about the commercialized, materialistic, consumerist craziness surrounding this time of year, but this time around I decided that instead of complaining about all the pressure to go into debt competing for the best presents and light displays, I would simply ignore it and focus on the joy that is central to the celebration of Christmas.
Well, actually, that’s only partly true. Joy is central to the Western celebration of Christmas, but in Eastern Christianity, the time leading up to Christmas has never been filled with parties and shopping. For Christians who follow the traditions developed in Greece, North Africa, and the Middle East, the season traditionally known as Advent is marked by fasting, giving to the poor, and deep inner reflection. As the winter solstice approaches, and we sit in the darkest time of the year, Advent reminds us to keep watch for the coming Light.
That timing is intentional. Most modern historians agree that we can’t know for sure when the historical Jesus was born. The early Christians, who didn’t start celebrating Christmas until the 3rd or 4th century, chose the winter solstice for its symbolic resonance.
Plus, the pagan culture around them was already celebrating a major holiday on this day, and the birth of Jesus seemed to fit the day’s theme perfectly. In fact, the reason the phrase “Happy Holidays” makes any sense is because almost all religions have recognized the symbolic meaning of the winter solstice. We all have some observance or celebration surrounding this day to mark the coming of Light into the world—which of course may or may not mean something different to each one of us.
It’s upon this eternal Light that I’m trying to focus this December, pushing aside my stress and superficiality to find true joy and hope. When I look up at the Fire Tower on Mount Penn and see that star, I know the Light we are all awaiting here in Reading is not far away.
The early, Jewish Christians used the most important language they knew, the Hebrew Scriptures, to reflect on their experience of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Speaking of his birth, they quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
Things seem dark, and some headlines can make it look like it’s getting darker. It is in the midst of this darkness that the Light of Christmas emerges for Reading and the whole world, bringing a spark of hope that will only continue to grow.