Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
December 3, 2017
In her poem “The Shortest Day,” Susan Cooper wrote:
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
For hundreds of years, even thousands of years, as Susan Cooper observes, people living in the more northerly parts of the world have used feasts and celebrations and lights to find their way through this dark time of the year.These customs have lifted our spirits, reduced our isolation, renewed our hope, and reassured us that eventually the light will return.By whatever name, and according to whatever religious tradition, and following whatever rituals may have been handed down from one generation to the next, many northerly people have found it spiritually necessary throughout the long sweep of time to engage in celebrations at this time of the year.
In our own time, we have our own ways of bringing joy and light to this dark season of the year.Our customs today differ from the customs that were common three hundred years ago, or three thousand years ago, but perhaps we can understand that all these customs are variations on a common and perennial theme.
There is nothing wrong with our light-filled celebrations at this dark season of the year.
Nevertheless, there are many people whose personal struggles are different from the challenge of long nights and short days.There has been a death in the family; there is a medical challenge; there is the loss of a job; there are things that have changed that are difficult to accept; there are things that have stayed the same that are difficult to accept; there is physical pain, or emotional pain; there is regret; there is loneliness; there is difficulty finding a sense of purpose.
For people who struggle in these ways – and this will probably include most of us, at one time or another in our lives – the color of this Christmas season is not bright red or cheerful green, but blue.And the insistent expectation that everyone needs to get into the holiday spirit may prompt some to avoid the celebrations of the season as much as they can.
It may be that your personal struggles will offer a different path toward a deeper understanding of the Christmas message.Unitarian Universalist minister Earl Holt has written:“Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled . . . [and] our deep darkness flooded with light. . . . It is a promise that comes to people walking in darkness – the sad, the weary, the hopeless.It is there for those who feel in their soul’s journey they are – like Mary and Joseph – wandering in a strange country, far from home.It is there for the pain-filled and the troubled and the lost.”
So if you are feeling blue this Christmas season, this time of long nights and short days, by all means honor your feelings, however forlorn they may be.Invite them in.Make them a cup of tea.Listen to them.They may have something to teach you that you could learn in no other way.As Richard Rohr says, “The truth comes from the edges of society.”This is true politically but also psychologically.You do not have to conform to the insistent expectations to be merry.You do not have to get into the holiday spirit.You can be on your own path.
© 2017 by David Herndon