Christmas past…

When I was small, my mother received a Christmas card that she loved. It showed simple silhouettes, in red white and gold, of a lion laid down with a lamb. The majestic strength of the lion held the vulnerable lamb, protected between its great paws. The tiny, fragile creature rested there in perfect trust… and, I have to wonder, of the two, which was the strongest?

Every year, for years thereafter, my mother tried to find something similar because, to her, the image symbolised what Christmas should be… a time of peace. The card meant so much to her that I remember it still, well over half a century later. The design was based upon the biblical saying that ‘the lion shall lay down with the lamb’, referring to a time of peace to come. These days, I know that no such saying exists in the Bible… that the closest is a verse from Isiah that speaks of the wolf laying down with the lamb… but there is much in the remembered image that speaks to the heart.

The heart is more than an organ at the centre of our lives, it is the seat of emotion and a centre of consciousness. Unlike the mind, it does not base its judgements on accuracy and fact, but on what it feels to be right and good. It might be fair to say that belief comes from the mind… for it always contains a choice… while faith arises in the heart where love rules and has its own intelligence.

People of many religions and paths, of many faiths and none, celebrate at this time of year. Whether their celebrations are based upon the love found at the heart of their family and community,  the turning wheel of the year or a religious festival, the message is one of coming together, as the old year draws to its close and a new one is about to be born, in peace, hope and harmony.

At the centre of many of these celebrations is the symbol of a light, be it a star in the heavens or a flame against the midwinter darkness, and that flame can burn within every heart, regardless of the different paths we follow.

Such celebrations are meaningless, though, until we bring them into our lives and hearts. We can all choose the strength of the lion, to champion and protect those in need. We can be as strong as the lamb and place ourselves, vulnerable, between the paws of trust. We can each be a light against the darkness.

However, and whether, you celebrate Christmas, may today bring you peace.

Celebrating the Light

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“May you be blessed

With the spirit of the season, which is peace,

The gladness of the season, which is hope,

And the heart of the season, which is love.”

Irish blessing.

It is Christmas and, this year, Hanukkah. Festivals of Light at midwinter that share a common thread of hope. For those of the Christian faith it is the moment that celebrates the birth of Jesus, a fragile babe who grew to change the world. Whether or not we accept that story as literal truth, it is symbolic of one that has wound itself through our human lives, casting its light into our hearts.

Many cultures have told of the birth of a Child: Horus, Krishna, Mithras, Mabon, Zoroaster…. There are these and many other threads to this tapestry. Their stories differ in detail, but a common strand runs through them and it is golden. These are the Divine Sons, the Children of Light who illuminate a path we might tread.

Many are now consigned to mythology by the modern mind that dismisses the miraculous or magical. Few now would accept the story of a Child who sprang fully formed from the rock on this day, whose worshippers came together in a communion of bread and wine. Yet Mithraism was widespread in the world of Rome, and the symbol of the unconquered Sun still persists.

Zoroaster was born laughing, a glow about him… Horus was the Hawk of the Sun… the theme of Light pervades the faith of the races of Man. Religions have risen and faded over millennia, but faith remains ever fresh and constant in the heart of those who seek the Light, regardless of the Name it bears in our tongue, the symbols we use or the stories we have woven.

We have, throughout our history, followed with love and faith the path of the Lightbringers of our age and our belief has changed our lives. Religions, those organised bodies of doctrine, have not always changed the world for the better,  but the quiet, personal faith that carries us through the days and nights of our lives, upholding us and comforting us through the dark times, giving joy in the brighter days.. this is a different thing… a personal, intimate thing, a relationship between the heart of man and the Divine. Religious institutions, like any other, may be rife with politics and intolerance, in spite of their message of love. But the flame that burns in each individual heart owes allegiance only to the Source of that Light.

Whatever path we choose to tread, whichever way our hearts are called, it is belief… faith… that shapes us. Even those who profess no faith in the One, by any Name, are shaped by whatever belief  their heart holds in Its place. For myself it is simple; all life, all creation is part of the great and multifaceted jewel that is the One. And I believe that we can find Its Light within the world, within ourselves and in each other.

The familiar Christmas story is a beautiful one, of a carpenter and his wife far from home, a babe born in a stable and cradled in a manger while a Star lights the way. There are many ways we can understand the tale, from simple acceptance to the deeply symbolic. Imagine that stable… animals and the warm smell of hay, a very earthy, humble place, very much of this world. Yet from this simple beginning a story unfolded… a Light was born… that guides millions of lives still today.

Within our ordinary lives we too many feel far from Home, the humble things of earth occupy our hands and minds while the heart seeks a star to guide it. Yet within the frames of our lives we are carrying that star… that spark of Divine Light… and this is what shines for us in those silent moments of turning within. Seeing it, we find our own bright birth in the earthy place we live. We do not have to seek far and wide like the Magi, nor wait for angelic hosts to point the way.

“….And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:20-21 (King James Version)

Black tinsel

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I was reluctantly obliged to shop today and saw black tinsel on sale. It seems somehow a rather odd departure from the usual cheery red, green and gold. But then, there is a lot of that about. The Christmas countdown has taken hold, shops are heaving, houses show pretty lights peeking through the curtains and Jingle Bells seems to be playing in every store. I wonder how long ago it was that political correctness deemed it inappropriate to play carols in public places? That seems to have sneaked in. Yet isn’t it rather hypocritical to be afraid to acknowledge the religious element of a religious festival, whilst encouraging people to spend every penny they have, and then some, on the festivities.

I wonder too how many still feel a sense of reverence as they place the carved symbol of the Babe in the crib? I may hurriedly stuff the decorations in boxes come Twelfth Night, but the little wooden nativity is always carefully laid away. The doubt of evidence and political correctness have clouded the faith of many with a vague, uneasy sense of guilt. And that, to me, is criminal. Faith and its expression are and should be a deeply personal thing between the heart and the Awe that touches it, regardless of the Name or story we believe in. Does it matter whether the date of a birth is accurate? Faith doesn’t need hard evidence… it knows an intimate and personal truth beyond facts, one that lights the heart and guides the hand.

Of course, it hasn’t always been ‘Christmas’. The turning of the year through its darkest point towards the light has been marked for longer than the two thousand years of the Christian era. Midwinter rites, fire festivals, times of turning and looking forward have marked the dark of the year and may be amongst the oldest communal celebrations and rites. On all continents and in probably every culture through known history and beyond, this moment in the solar year has spoken to us in symbolic terms and given rise to expressions of faith and hope of brightness to come. Mōdraniht, Yule, Saturnalia, Hannuka… festivals of motherhood and light, celebrations of birth and the unconquered Sun… many now forgotten or labelled simply ‘pagan’, many unrecognised by the wider world, discarded and discounted by those who choose to wear other labels.

It really doesn’t matter what the name… or even the date, the recognition of the turning from dark to light has always been marked around the winter solstice. It is the spirit of the moment that matters.

Within our own lives too we find that turning point, when our worlds seem dark and we look towards a brighter day. There are many who will go through the motions of Christmas with panic as they try to conform to societal expectations beyond their means, financially or emotionally, clinging to the forms and losing sight of the inner heart of the moment. There are many for whom Christmas cheer will not be possible, shadowed by the acuteness of grief and loss. Many more who are gathering strength to face a changed world.  I recall one Christmas morning, fourteen years ago now, digging the frozen earth, planting coffee creams and a sapling tree with my sons, three pairs of eyes, brown and blue, raining on the earth. It was a time when it seemed that the sun could not light our lives again.

But, of course, it does, with that healing inevitability of the turning wheel. The dark of the year is the nadir, that pivotal moment when we reach the longest night and know that the days lead inexorably towards the first snowdrop, the first sunlit morning of spring.

A winter’s tale

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In the northern hemisphere, it is the Winter Solstice, when the balance between dark and light shifts once again and the Light begins to return. The moment has been celebrated as far back as we can search in human history, a tradition born from the movement of the heavens, with a message of rebirth and new beginnings not too dissimilar to the Christian ideal, though its roots lie in beliefs already ancient when Jesus was born.

There are some messages that seem common to all faiths and paths and which seem to come together at this point in the year. “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men…” from carols to cards, this traditional phrase seems to encapsulate the essence of the season in a way that can speak to all men, across time and place, regardless of faith or creed. It is the hope for humanity that rules in most of our hearts; that we might emerge from the darkness of prejudice, fear and hatred into the light of love.

The fact that there is scholarly argument about the precise translation of this biblical phrase is unimportant…it has entered into consciousness and we even speak of Christmas as the ‘season of goodwill’. If we were obliged to look merely at the facts of the Nativity, we might be surprised at how much of what we ‘know’ of the story is based in tradition rather than in the historical record. Quite apart from the plethora of translations now available of the biblical texts, a greater understanding of the times has altered how we see and read the meagre verses that have given birth to the familiar and much-loved tale.

The ‘inn’ has, in many later translations, disappeared to become a ‘guest room’, using the same word that refers to the upper room whereXmas St Faiths 0261 the Last Supper was held. The lower floor in houses of the time often sheltered the animals too, so a manger would not be out of the question in a house. If there was no place for the couple in the guest room, then the warmth of the lower room might have been offered. Which leaves the innkeeper, who is not mentioned in the biblical story, redundant. The animals may well have shared the space, but the Ox and the Ass as we know them are not mentioned. The Magi are neither called kings nor are they numbered… only the three gifts are counted… and they may have visited the Holy Family up to two years after the birth if Herod’s decree is anything to go by. Even the date of Jesus’ birth is a based on a decision rather than facts.

There are other discrepancies between the biblical verses and the traditional Christmas story we have come to know and love. Various branches of the Christian faith attribute more…or less…importance to different passages and celebrate at different times. Many who are Christian only in name, not by personal faith, also celebrate this season and few can be unaware of the traditional and much loved tableau of the shepherds, the wise men and the stable where the Child sleeps beneath the star that shines brightly in the frosty night air.

The details really do not matter. Nor do the lines between fact, fiction and tradition. When something speaks directly to the heart, it does so in the wordless voice of truth. The story, as a story, is simply beautiful. As a symbolic tale… that the heavens rejoice as Divinity is born into the lowliest human form… it is also beautiful. For those who believe in either the story or its essence, it is the birth of Light in the darkness.

As I set up the little wooden figures of my nativity scene this year, I placed the Child in the manger with reverence, not for the small, crudely carved figure. Not even for the biblical Jesus. My reverence was for what that Child represents within the soul of humanity… and within every heart. In the darkest of times, the Light lives within each one of us, and we are one with the nameless One.

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