December 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
A freezing wind rattles the bright red berries on the stiff green boughs. The early dusk of winter lights a massive stone as it is set to point toward the setting of the solstice sun. As the sky fades to deep blue, then black, the ancient masons must surely have pondered their own subtle purpose as they watched the sparkling crystal sky-dome appear from behind the veil of fading blue. Perhaps, for a moment, they felt their own certain mortality reflected in that slowly dying sun, their own passage into oblivion in those cold and distant stars. Surely their hearts were filled with deeply felt prayers and wishes that just as those bright berries could stand down the winter frost, that their lives, their sun, their sons, would awaken once again tomorrow, waken once again next year, as the fruited plains erupted in fecund splendor. How distant those ripe apples, those plump spikes of grain must have felt on that cold and freezing night. How gladly must they have seen the promise of that glad Holly, in its pledge of life still strong?
The dying light of that same solstice, that cast long shadows of those builders and their stones across the Salisbury Plain, had just rolled across Canaan, sending Abraham into his tent to escape the cold desert night. That same first winter dusk, crept across the valley of the Indus River, and hid the newly scribed Vedas in the same frigid darkness. The mystery and rhythm of our own fragile earth, of our infinitely more fragile lives, has risen and fallen along with these seasons for all people in every time. The cycles of the mortal death of our fragile flesh, the joyous births of our helpless children share the pacing of our planet and its mother sun. However they may have spoken of these hopes and fears, however they may have symbolized, ritualized or interpreted those primal feelings, they have always been a part of the interplay between our lives and our home, this dear earth.
We share with these long lost, but not forgotten people this same fear and fascination with the cycles of renewal of our planet. The sun, marching south along the horizon, falling lower and lower each day, threatens to vanish beyond our world. Its bold turn north, it’s triumphant reversal back into assent, is an inspiriting promise of revival. These hinges of the sun’s passage are our most basic symbolic connections to fundamental life giving cycles. Certainly not so fierce for us, in our warm homes, on our brightly lit streets, but still, every winter as we watch the leaves die and fall, we can not help but think of our own tree of life, and our own individual fates as doomed as the leaves which once hung on the dark branches of the sleeping forest. We still look to the immortality of our children’s children’s children. We still feel that cold and sad retreat of warm grass, bright flowers and naked children in the sun. Those barren branches in the low cool light cannot help but make us pray that the dark and dying corners of our own lives will rebound and flourish once again, just as we know that forest will also bloom as the sun climbs back to its zenith. Every death we grieve, every birth we cherish is a manifestation of this grand pulse of global life. We are kin to every creature who watched this slow descent into the cold oblivion of winter with the fondest hopes for the return of fruitful meadows, for the healthy survival of their shivering children – for the return of the sun, the light.
There can be no doubt that our inner resonances with these grand cycles are at the heart of all the bright winter festivals and rituals of renewal in every culture across all time. The anniversaries of grand moments in the histories of those ancient people are lost dates, counted on obsolete calendars. No one knows on what day Jesus was born, or on which the brave Macabees died. The bureaucracies of faith have chosen these winter days precisely because they have this deeper meaning, these profound connections with our most primal spirits. The mysterious ideals that their prophets and martyrs have so feebly tried to understand and explain to us are and always will be, mere shadows of the intrinsic spirit of this global life system. Despite the protestation of every Chanukah play and every Christmas pageant, it is not the miraculous lanterns of the bloodthirsty Macabeans, not the shunned peasant babe in a stable that we really celebrate this season.
The True Meaning of these joyous holidays is far more ancient, far more personal, far more universal that the auto da fe of some dogmatic principal. The birth of the baby Jesus to redeem the world, the rebuilding of the temple to restore the faith – these are merely closely circumscribed symbols of our greater and shared hopes – merely touchstones in our passages as finite members of the grandeur that is the miraculous livingness of which we are part. From our common and timeless relationship with our earth, our sun and our universe, we all feel the same wilting terror in the face of death, and the same shimmering hope at the sight and thought of new life as each of those ancient heroes and all their spawn, of all their mother’s mother’s mothers, of all our countless cousins across this planet and all of time.
These brave winter fruit – our toyon and pyrocantha, or the bright holly berries of Europe – symbolize for us the almost changeless passion of life for living. These tiny clusters of humble crimson promises – perhaps even better than those long dead martyrs – evoke clear and universal sympathy with our joined plight of peoples and planet; of the miraculous and timeless way, eon after eon, life has withstood the endless return of killing winter cold, the cataclysmic onslaught of cometary impacts and ash spewing volcanoes. How inspiring, in the face of our own short flash of individual life, is this tenacity of Life, our Life, this divine spark that we all share. Can’t you see, in those bright sparks of fruit, the immortality of this grand family, the beauty and majesty of this planetary ecosystem, the bright cheeks of the healthy newborn, and the life giving blood that joins our trillions of cells in a communal and living broth? Don’t the colored lights draped on eaves, the candles glowing night after night and the sweet young evergreens symbolize nothing so much as our brave stand against this dying season? Doesn’t the bounty of festive banquets in a time of naked orchards; doesn’t the generosity of freely given presents in the time of dwindling stocks, represent nothing so much as our confidence that we will prevail, just like Life always has – our confidence that we can manifest our own plenty even as the planet wanes? Aren’t the smiles of children and the gratitude of loved ones as they receive their gifts really just prayers for renewal and bounty?
I am so offended when this authentic and natural impulse to pray for the return of the sun is rudely co-opted by some power hungry patriarch – when to remember and encourage the supple buds of spring, to celebrate the persistence of this mystery that fills my sprit, is demeaned as untrue to the anointed and contrived ritual telling of their dogma. The huge joy I find in creating a sense of bounty and plenty in contrast to the waning beams of winter light; the grateful palliative of bright and joyful lights, of gifts and goodwill, of ritual and remembrance comes straight from my heart, from our hearts in ancient and profound connections to this nature – our nature that we are so inextricably a part of. How dare they scold me that my genuine joy is false unless it gives only praise to their doctrine? How dare they judge as unworthy any expression of faith and gratitude that does not respect their arbitrary rituals?
I claim every tradition! They have all been “my people,” for we have always been only one people. We all know that, and we can all feel it in our common struggles against the great forces that eternally challenge our most cherished lives. Obsolete rivalry among the siblings of mankind may have made these petty turf wars inevitable. But today, whether on the Salisbury plain, in the deserts of Canaan or on the banks of the Indus, we can look directly into one another’s eyes; we can concretely witness the hopes and spirits of all our diverse kin. We should no longer abide the xenophobes who wish to divide us so they may commandeer our spirits. We must no longer bow to the elite who trade wishful platitudes that soothe our frightened minds, when their traditions only seem to divide us. They will not usurp my joy and ownership of these Holly Days. How dare they proclaim their perfect knowledge of the “true meaning” of this holy time. How dare they pit one family against the other with protestations of the one truth? We are one family and we cannot allow them to divide us any longer. It is in recognition of the deep and holy connection that we share with every soul of every age; it is this common experience that we must celebrate. It is the union of our experience as but one experience on this earth, in these immutable cycles that we must rejoice in.
Happy Holly Days