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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Lights from Many Lamps

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 28, 2008


From very early times, human beings have worshipped the sun, and their deities were mainly sun gods. Many of the holy days, the rites, and the customs of ancient religion have come down to us in our Yuletide festivals.

 

Our forebears depended on the sun for warmth and light, and for the food that grew in the warm sunlight. When, in the fall, the sun began to wane, the people were afraid because the sun, their god, seemed to be growing weak and ill.

 

So, to coax the sun back into health, the people brought dry cedar to use as wicks, and gathered the fern seed and the mistletoe to burn as offerings. They also made crude wheels of dry cedar or pine, which they rubbed with resin or fat to make them burn quickly. These they set on fire, and rolled them to the top of the highest hill, to symbolize the sun god’s ascent. This ancient festival was known as “Wheel Day”.

 

About fifteen hundred years ago, the Christian story of the birth of Jesus was combined with folk customs from much earlier ages, weaving new threads of belief into the rich traditions of the winter solstice celebration.

 

The Romans dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, an extremely jolly midwinter festival that made lavish use of green boughs, garlands, and especially, holly. Earlier still, worshippers of the ancient Persian sun god, Mithra, reckoned the 25th of December as the date of the festival in celebration of the Mother of Heaven.  When Roman soldiers returned from their exploits, they brought with them news of these foreign celebrations, which soon combined with the ideas of the new Christian groups then coming together in Rome.

 

The farther north people lived, the more deeply appreciated is the influence of the sun, especially in the dark of winter. The countries of Scandinavia extend far into the Arctic Circle , and their people have long marked each turning point in the solar cycle with rituals and joyous celebrations.

 

According to the ancient Scandinavian calendar, the night of December 13th was the longest night of the year, and many were the legends of goblins and spirits who prowled that dark night to visit evil on human beings and beasts alike. People yearned for a friendly spirit to intercede and bring back the light and frighten away the demons. Over many centuries, this spirit of light became personified in Queen Lucia, a young girl crowned with a ring of candles. Her appearance on the morning of December 13 is the beginning of the long, joyous solstice celebration in Sweden .

Each culture has its own way of celebrating the Christmas season. The traditional Mexican festival of Posadas combines the solemnity of the nativity of Jesus with the exuberance of a village fiesta.

 

Posadas , or the Pilgrimage, begins on December 16. Each evening for the nine nights preceding Christmas, people in the villages form a procession wandering through the streets and passageways in a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem long ago, and the search for lodgings that eventually led to the humble manger.

 

Sometimes, the procession is headed by a man and a woman dressed in costumes like Joseph and Mary. In other places, the pilgrims carry lighted candles and small figurines of the holy couple, as they go from house to house seeking lodging. Neighbors and children all join in the search. At each house, they ask for shelter, but the answer is always the same: There is no room for them in the inn. At the last house along the way, however, the doors are flung open and all are made welcome! A joyous celebration-- with plenty to eat and drink and dancing and games-- and, of course, a pinnate-- then follows on each of the nine nights of Posadas .

 

But this deep human need to seek out the light at the darkest season of the year certainly transcends our Western or Christian tradition. The Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, takes place in late November. Actually, Diwali is five festivals in one, each quite different from the others. Taken together, they contain everything that holidays are made of-- feasting, dancing, parades, fireworks, worship, presents, traveling entertainers, and lights-- hundreds of thousands of lights.

 

In the Hindu tradition, Diwali is the time when Lakshimi, goddess of good fortune, comes to visit in people’s homes. No part of the house is left dark, because she’s supposed to be able to find her way anywhere that she may visit. Diwali means “garland of lights” in Sanskrit, and the day before the festival, boys and girls pour mustard oil into tiny earthenware lamps, all fitted with wicks. Hundreds of these lamps are set out in long rows along rooftops, on balconies and window sills, and along the paths leading to people’s homes. A single family might have as many as a thousand tiny lamps-- all welcoming Lakshimi to their home.

 

Near the time of the winter solstice, our Jewish neighbors (maybe even some of our own families) celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday in remembrance of a miracle that took place over 2100 years ago in ancient Palestine . Hanukkah means “feast of light” in Hebrew.

 

In those ancient days, Jerusalem was under the rule of King Antiochus. He worshipped different gods than the Jews, and tried to force his religion upon his subjected people. He captured the Great Temple at Jerusalem , ordered the burning of all Jewish holy books, and put to death many of the scholars and leaders of the Jewish religion.

 

When Antiochus sent his soldiers to the village of Modin to force the Jews there to sacrifice to his gods, a man named Mattahias and his sons refused to obey the order and killed the soldiers. They then fled into the mountains, and under the name of the  Maccabees, they launched a guerrilla war against King Antiochus. After seven years, they were victorious, and entered Jerusalem in triumph.

 

However, after the reclaimed the Temple and attempted to re-light  the eternal lamp there, they found only one small vial of holy oil-- just a few ounces  in all, hardly enough to last even a single day, much less the eight days needed for a new supply of consecrated oil to be prepared. But they lit the lamp anyway, not knowing what would happen.

 

Rather than going out, the holy lamp burned for eight days and nights-- long enough for all the branches of the menorah to be lighted. Believing that only a miracle could have kept the lights ablaze, Judah the Maccabee led the people in a great celebration.

 

This event was recorded in the year 142 of the Common Era. Every year since then, Jewish families gather in their homes to light the Hanukkah lamps. They follow the same ritual as in that original ceremony long ago: One candle burning the first night; two on the second; and another each night until, on the last night of Hanukkah, all eight candles are ablaze for all the world to see.

 

It is no accident, perhaps, that so many of the world’s religious traditions have festivals of light at this, the darkest season of the year. There is something in our human spirit, perhaps, that yearns to light a candle in the darkness-- that will not abandon hope, even when life seems darkest.

 

Through the darkness of space, the earth whirls on its miraculous journey around the sun. In the procession of equinoxes from light to dark into light, we sense the power and mystery of great, cosmic forces beyond our control. Our earth goes from its spring birth to summer growth, fall harvest, and winter stillness. This season of greatest darkness will  pass away, bringing back the life-giving sun.

 

There is something very powerful about lighting candles. The candles of joy and concern we kindle each Sunday symbolize our hope, our love, our caring for one another and all of those around is. From ancient times, the light has been a symbol of the Divine—the Eternal Light, the Light of the World. It is also a symbol of the Inner Light—the light of love—that shines in each of our souls.

 

We light our candles, especially at this special season, to remind us that the darkness, however powerful it may seem at times, does not overcome us. There always remains within the human heart a spark of hope than can be fanned into a light illuminating new pathways of caring and compassion.

Now the candles have been lighted at all the shrines of our human family, before the worshipful images of Australia , Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and North and South America .

Each man and woman and child has within the light of hope and courage, and each faith has its light, its vision, its dream of a good life, its gods and celebrations.

We would be so much poorer without these companions from other faiths. We are enriched by the myths and legends of all religions, from the dawn of human history to our own day, in every land on Earth. So we celebrate our mid-winter festival with them.

As you light candles in your own homes during this holiday season, may you remember your power to light the world with your love as well. May we always remember the power each of us has to brighten the darkness of this world,

May all the Advent candles. all the Hanukkah candles, all the Christmas candles, and all the lights kindled by men and women of all faiths the world over, not only brighten the darkness of winter, but also brighten the darkness in our hearts.

May all these lights—set ablaze by people of goodwill across the globe—assure us that:

Spring will follow winter

Hope with triumph over despair,

Peace will eclipse war,

Love will conquer evil.

And that the power of goodness in the human soul can never be extinguished.

 

May this be the spirit in which we share in the celebrations of all our neighbors, near and far.

 

 


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