Darkness and Light

Posted December 23rd, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Darkness and Light

This has been a sacred time of year just about as far back as we can find traces of human culture. Through millenia when people were far more connected to the natural rhythms of our planet, cultures have acknowledged the moment when the longest darkness begins to relent to the lengthening light, a perennial dance from which we have marked “calendars” for tens of thousands of years.

In the southern hemisphere the opposite is going on, part of what it means to live on a sphere. The dance takes place in the round. We are not sitting still in the universe. We are revolving at great speed, and our revolving planet revolves around our sun and this whole solar system is traveling through space at a mindboggling speed.FAMILY

Of course, humans didn’t know that way back when the solstices were first being marked by ritual and celebration. And I wonder how they experienced the meaning of it, a view that saw only the sun and stars in motion in the sky while they stood on a stable flat surface called “earth, and the sky called “heaven,” you know, what it felt like to live with that kind of cosmology. Our western religions were shaped by this way of viewing those seemingly separate worlds and a lot of power was put into that view of the heavens.

For one thing, humans made up a lot of great stories. And so constellations became full of narratives and vivid characters interacting up there in the heavens, chaos and power, gestation and death, great battles and fierce gods, and humans the observers trying to find meaning in the shapes and patterns. Orion looks so obvious to us, but shift perspective to another place in outer space and he’s not there at all.

From these narratives came all sorts of spiritualities and religions down through the ages. Christianity took this time from the Romans, Greeks, and other earth-based cultures and made it the heart of its foundational narrative – the moment when God descends into our world in the form of a vulnerable baby born into an oppressed tribe under the thumb of empire to announce a new “kingdom” that would be marked by peace on earth and good will toward all.

Yes, hopes never realized but longed for mark this time of year when the light begins to stretch out longer into the darkness.

Thin blue line - NASA photo

Thin blue line – NASA photo

In this industrial era in which human civilization lives so abstracted from its relationships within the rhythms of Nature, I have found it to be a great sign of hope that more and more millions of us in the US culture are taking time to honor, ritualize, and celebrate the winter solstice.

My life has been framed by the Christian narrative, and by the sorrow of its corruption as it became co-opted by the powerful empires of Europe and here in the US by a comfortable middle and upper middle class spirituality focused on personal sin rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. My life has also been deeply impacted by various earth spiritualities of the indigenous, a spirituality deeply embedded in the life and energy of this planet, and then also by eastern traditions that meditate on the yin and yang of reality, on non-judgement in one’s approach and attitude toward the polarities by which there is existence at all – life and death, light and darkness, cold and hot, up and down, gravity and expansion, slow and fast, cause and effect…

And how you can’t know one without the other, and how they are also not separate but also mixed up in one another. We tend to judge one side of these spectrums as better than the other, and that gets us into a lot of trouble.

First appearance

How would we feel this ecstatic joy today when the sun finally broke through here in Milwaukee after a record-breaking period of sunless days if not for that lingering gray darkness?!

We are living in times that many of us call “dark.” They are dark because they are hard, because so much is collapsing, falling apart, because fear seems at times to be overwhelming the culture and people are searching everywhere for scapegoats to blame for the wrenching changes underway.

Or one could see these times as the necessary darkness that allows us to SEE the light, or to imagine it at all. Part of the insight of the Christian birth narrative is that the whole story is about light coming into the world at the darkest time, not only of the year, but in the story of the Jewish people as they lived under the harsh rule of Caesar.

Many people speak of the need to create a new narrative to carry us out of the industrial age, to get us through the tumult of its inevitable collapse, to create a vision for a future life that we can begin to create right now – a better life than this one, with a new birth of the human community in a healing work and relationship with the Earth within which we are completely embedded. We can take much from the old stories, but we also need to be fearless about letting go that which comes from old cosmologies and hierarchies that are no longer relevant to THIS world, to what we know NOW about the cosmos, this beautiful planet, who we are within it.

So I’m not rooting for a conquering of darkness by the light. That is an old cosmology that tells us that light finally triumphs at some point. But that is not a truth of the universe. The truth of the universe is that creation occurs through the dance of the two, and that you cannot even get a glimmer of the light if you don’t have darkness by which to view it.

If we could live as if no side wins, in the realization that there is no ultimate victory, that death is not conquered ever, nor is life ever snuffed out – if we could rest in the reality of what gave birth to all that is, out of chaos and explosions and comings-together and comings-apart that will go on until, until – who knows? – maybe we could see these times as the gestation period out of which new creation will emerge.

That is the hope I wish us all as we honor these sacred days. And may New Creation be the work we take up in 2015 – the work of our hands and our hearts, sharing this common story of our humanity as we search more intensely than ever for what it means to be – us.

Margaret Swedish


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