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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Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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