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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Justice is a three-sided coin

(July 3, 2020)

CIVILIZATIONS are based on a variety of structures that combine power and authority. Putting those two things together, however, can mean truth is a dangerous commodity.

When people object to the way they are being treated by authority, trouble starts. Power does not respond well to a challenge of any kind — especially if it reflects facts it doesn’t want to admit.

Lately, we have seen stark examples of how such structures react to the challenges that truth presents. #BlackLivesMatter put the spotlight on systemic racism, with global reactions to the death of George Floyd. Wearing a mask to slow the spread of pandemic disease has become a political act, especially in the U.S. Protesting ecological destruction, or even just protecting water and soil, will soon be a crime in Alberta (and perhaps, eventually, here). Economic recovery is placed ahead of the health and well-being of ordinary people, as environmental regulations are ignored or rescinded.

Resistance to these structures of power and authority doesn’t begin because of what journalists say, however. A free press just communicates the message, multiplying what a group of people, somewhere, has chosen to challenge. This is why speaking truth to power is a dangerous exercise, putting journalists in the crosshairs of angry authority — perhaps even risking injury or death — for doing their jobs.

Every year, more and more journalists are beaten or killed, making the work of journalists almost as dangerous that of environmental defenders, who die by the hundreds every year around the world, trying to protect the Earth and their homes.

This year, World Environment Day on June 5 passed almost without notice here in Manitoba. It was also the day thousands of Winnipeggers demonstrated peacefully against racism and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, giving that day a different focus this year for environmentalists, as well.

There is a simple reason for the lack of conflict between these two causes: there will be no racial justice without ecological justice. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, we should make it a three-sided coin, so you can add in social justice, as well. Each of them requires the other two, if we are going to change those structures, those systems, that combine power and authority in ways that threaten our global future together.

When leaders would rather listen to the ideological voices in their heads than the common sense of people in the streets, however, it is time for them to step aside — before they are simply set aside.

Fear of criticism is a sign of insecurity, not of conviction. It is fear the critics are right and you are wrong, so it is easier to ignore their voices, tune them out, shut them down, deny them the chance to speak — and, if that doesn’t stop them, then tear gas, truncheons and bullets should do the trick. You can always arrest and punish those who persist.

Yet few (if any) revolutions have resulted from some well-executed master plan. Instead, it is something small, a pebble rolling downhill, that provokes an avalanche of change.

The convenience store clerk in Minneapolis who called police because George Floyd had supposedly given them a fake $20 bill could never have imagined the global impact of such a minor decision.

It was a citizen’s cellphone, once again, that captured video of what happened and shared the news — not the journalists.

Yes, racism is systemic — because, otherwise, common sense and ordinary humanity would have eliminated it.

Social inequality is also systemic — because, otherwise, kindness and generosity would have made it disappear.

Ecological injustice is systemic, too, because if people respected the Earth around them and within them, there would be no other colour in our lives than green.

Yet if racial, social and ecological injustice are left unchallenged, accepted and embedded in the institutions of our society, then trouble is surely coming. Without warning, something small, whether local or global, will trigger a pent-up avalanche of change.

When that happens, everything familiar will be swept away — the good with the bad — and life will be forced to begin again amidst the rubble of what used to be. That “new normal” people talk about may be better than the old one, but not necessarily.

So, we need to speak truth to power — in the press, in the boardroom, in the law courts, and in the chambers of political authority.

That truth must be about racial justice, about social equality, about care for the Earth.

If these truths continue to be ignored, discounted or suppressed, then one day some small, otherwise insignificant event will be the spark that ignites a revolution whose outcome no one can predict.

Change doesn’t need to happen that way, but given the continued arrogance and privilege of those in authority today, it too easily could.

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