A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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