A new Durango friend just told the story of her wedding. She gave me permission to share it with you here. It was just a few years ago. Before moving to Durango, the bride and her groom lived in Southern California. Right in the beachy, infamous area called “Orange County.” It’s known for its grand suburban expanses, glamorous stars, reality TV, palm trees, rolling hills and endless sunshine. It was in that landscape that my friend and her fiancé carefully planned their wedding. The setting was a beautiful back yard garden, with lovely fruit trees and plenty of space for the wedding ceremony as well as room for gathering before and celebrating after the joyous event.
The bride was excited, prepared and thrilled for her once-in-a-lifetime event. And, if you’re not from Southern California, I’ll just remind you that it never rains there.
Well, except on this day. This special wedding day. It not only rained, it poured. A downpour so great that the entire crowd of invited guests and celebrants had to be moved inside.
The bride and groom walked down the aisle and made their way around the oval coffee table. The groomsmen stood crowded in front alongside the floor lamp, the bridesmaids hanging out into the kitchen as the caterers tried as much as possible to quietly prepare the trays of tiny quiche puffs and champagne glasses.
But the bride’s father, a rabbi, reminded her, with joy and forbearance, “It’s just a wedding! Just like any other day!”
This bride has been happily married ever since that rainy celebratory day. She is grateful for her father’s wisdom, and she reminds herself of her wedding story when she finds herself struggling at this time of year with these shorter days and long, dark nights that come upon us as the calendar moves into December. Christmas: it’s just a day! Yom Kippur, it’s just a day! My birthday—just a day like any other!
I don’t think she’s alone in harboring some feeling of sadness nor do I believe her struggles come from being raised in a warm, sunny climate. Yet some of the folks from this congregation move themselves to the warmth and light of a place further south, not simply because their bones creak, but because their heart and mind struggle, especially in the month of December. Some of us here today, despite acknowledging a host of gratitude still move through this time accompanied by some Charlie Brown melancholia.
December 7th is the second Sunday of four of the season of Advent—a period of time that walks with us to “God’s coming” however we might interpret that event in the Unitarian Universalist context and our personal theology. What it reminds me, is that as I, as an inhabitant of this part of the planet, move closer to the darkest day on December 21st, I need help. I need to pay attention to each step I take along this increasingly darkened path. I see and feel and experience it clearly when I get up in the morning and go out to get my newspaper, or when I come out of a building at night and the streets are so dark that I need the flashlight on my phone so that I don’t trip on the pavement. When I drive I need to make sure that I look carefully for the glimmer of pedestrians or cyclists crossing my path.
Yes, Christmas is coming, but the pagan festivals were there first, and this celebration of “God’s birth” attached itself with its story of a wondrous birth and its own connection to nature and barn animals—it attached itself to this particular mysterious time and season.
All of this is my roundabout invitation to you to be present to this time of year, to anticipate and welcome the difficulties and the darkness, the part that requires us to be more careful in our step and pathways rather than only struggle with the omnipresent commercialism, consumerism, expectations and anniversary memories that haunt so many during this time.
Those things are real, yes, but as the American environmentalist Bill McKibben reminds me, “There is no ideal Christmas; only the Christmas you decide to make as a reflection of your values, desires, affections, traditions.”
A little history from our religious lineage: Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to.
That’s right. Before this time, the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas—expressly because it wasn’t biblical, and because it was connected to the pagan time of reveling and “making merriment.” Not in keeping with Puritan values.
But these days, just like the perfect backyard sunny wedding day, we rev up expectations for a day laden with a wondrous nostalgia and a kind of perfect joy that doesn’t acknowledge what is. We ramp up for presents—both the giving and receiving of them, as if they will make the suffering cease, as if they will take away all the ills of the day.
What is most on my heart, what may be on your heart as well, what might even be hidden away in the back of some hearts in hopes that not thinking of it will make it not real, are the recent deaths and reactions in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Staten Island, New York.
The news events have pulled off scabs and re-opened wounds of the struggle for justice for people of color—struggles that have spoken up as demonstrations both peaceful and others with more explosive frustration in cities and communities all around our nation. Then recently, a long march from Ferguson to the Missouri capital in Jefferson City that NAACP President Cornell Brooks reminds us is the moral heritage that draws upon our civil rights history. I am inspired by their courage. I hear folks discuss and debate the causes and solutions, and we might want to pretend we aren’t affected here in our Durango hamlet—only then we then are not making the Christmas that is the reflection of our values.
So if you’ve been fighting some feelings of sadness or inner conflict right now, it might not be simply “seasonal affective disorder.” My dear colleague from Mississippi, a black man who has been in ministry as many years as I have, posted online a self-portrait showing tears streaming down his face after the word was released that Staten Island would have no indictment for police officers in the killing of Eric Garner, officers who were clearly viewed on video tape and where autopsy results would find simply, “homicide resulting from a chokehold.” I grieve for my friend. I grieve for that family. I grieve for this world.
There are other personal sorrows. You’ve lost a loved one some time this year, or the anniversary of a great loss that occurred at the holiday time in the past. I notice my own tendency to justify and minimize the loss of my father who died this past summer. We hadn’t had much of a relationship anyway. Yet the loss comes when now I face the reality that it won’t change this year.
Therapists tell me that counseling slots are filling up—not so much for any one specific thing, but because people realize they need to talk. People find themselves needing a check up, a check in. This is good news.
We liberal religionists tend to be an optimistic lot, so where is our hope? How might we respond to the struggles and anxiety and expectations of the season?
So many of the holidays of this season, Advent, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Kwanza, Divali, light small symbols of light in the darkness—not to shut the darkness out—but to become comfortable in its presence, to become companions rather than in fear of the dark…to find miracles: of oil that lasted far longer (as in the Maccabean story) than would have ever been expected; to mark the days of waiting that move us gently into the season—candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. And in this community of Love, each week we light our candles of joy and sorrow to draw larger connections, for similar intent, that of hope, peace, joy and love.
In this season of unrealistic expectations, I invite you to make a place for religion. In whatever way you choose. Let it be for the prayers you say when you light your Hanukkah menorah. Let it be for the Advent awareness you discover each day as you wait for the coming of justice and safety. Let your celebration of Yule, your observance of Solstice remind you of your connection to the planet and seasons movement—to welcome and invite the beauty and introspection the darkness brings.
I am waiting in this season. Waiting with awareness, and fully awake to raise my voice against the systems of injustice that would continue to give example as to the lifting of some individuals over others—that would fly in the face of my commitment to the inherent dignity of every person. I must use my religion, my spiritual practices, my small light in the darkness at this time of year (just like every other day!), to say that I stand up against hate, and I stand on the side of love, and to say very clearly, in this congregation and in the world that #blacklivesmatter. I am called to be true to what I believe are the core principles of our faith.
This is how I make it through this season. I light candles. I am present. I sometimes struggle. And I shed tears for those whose struggles are much greater than my own. I continue to acknowledge my own privilege. I talk to my friends (or my minister) when I’m feeling blue. And if there’s more than that, I make an appointment with the therapist.
I keep in front of me the tools of my faith that invite me into what the theologian describes as the “luminous darkness.” And I appreciate Annie Dillard’s reminder that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
The translated words of the Sufi-mystic Rumi offer,
There is no getting ready,
other than grace.
My faults have stayed hidden.
One might call that a preparation!
Here is the invitation to be with the dark days of the season. May we walk together. May we feel each other’s presence. May we feel the spirit of the Ultimate that accompanies us in all the shades of the day and night.