One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 


Thoughts of Christmas

Christmas, in merry old England, used to be the day when bills were due.  There are vestiges of that still.  Just this past week, when my mind was on upcoming celebrations and family time, companies continue to email me their bills, reminding me that all celebrations are but temporary.  Money’s the real thing, and it takes no holidays.  While the holiday season may be subdued for some due to lack of travel, for me any day that I don’t need to leave the house is a good one.  We had a pretty nasty patch of weather on Christmas Eve, and one might be tempted to say that the atmospheric conditions outside are frightful.  There’s a coziness about staying indoors around the holidays.  Besides, there’s a pandemic out there too.

We’ve got a quiet day planned at home with our usual traditions.  We added a Yule log to our celebrations this year—much of what we now recognize as Christmas derived from the teutonic Yule.  Otherwise, we are quiet people with rather simple tastes.  Even if we can’t afford much, the holidays mean time off work.  Time for those close to us without constantly having to auto-correct back to earning money at work.  I frequently reflect on how distorted capitalism has made us.  Our European colleagues have far more time off work than Americans do.  They don’t seem to suffer for it.  There’s not much light outside anyway, so why not hunker down a while?  Reflect on what’s really important?

First thing this morning, after watering the tree, I fired up the computer to write a few words before the festivities began.  The first two emails in my inbox were, as if on cue, bills.  Computers have no idea this is a holiday, and our neighbor’s early morning car announcing its lock secured tells me that he’s just getting home from work.  The fiction that we all have today off, as time home with family, plays out every year.  Holidays are often the privilege of the affluent, which is why, I suppose, Saturnalia was marked by a reversal of roles for several days.  Rome wasn’t exactly a friendly empire, but it wasn’t a capitalist one either.  This Christmas I’m hoping that those who have to work today—healthcare workers, those who keep stores open for last-minute supplies, emergency workers of all kinds—will have adequate time for peace coming to them.  Even non-essential work can be wearying.  Let’s celebrate, thankful that we’ve survived these last few years at all.  The bills will wait until tomorrow.


Winter Rebirth

It seems like 2020 has already had many longest nights.  The Trump administration has hurt so many people so badly (many of them his own supporters) that this feels like four years of night finally beginning to experience dawn.  It is finally the solstice!  This ancient seasonal holiday, coopted by Christianity for its own purposes, retains great symbolic value.  The story of Jesus’ birth is about light coming into the world.  So are the myths behind Saturnalia and Yule and even Hanukkah.  We tend to want to view things literally when the true meaning comes in the form of symbols that strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.  We fear the dark, and we’ve been living in it for so long now that perhaps the light hurts our eyes.

A friend pointed out the Winter Solstice Fest, put on by Shift.  It streamed (I almost wrote “aired”) over the past weekend.  Involving many indigenous, and even some new age practitioners, it was a celebration of light’s return.  Although I couldn’t watch all of it—weekends are so necessary when work becomes the only reality of five days per week—but what I did see inspired me.  The chauvinism of one religion asserting its superiority over other explorations of spirituality can contribute to the darkness.  When we take symbols literally we’re capable of great damage.  Being inclusive forces us to recognize that we are all seeking light while learning to walk in the dark.

One of the reasons I watch horror is because, on the balance, it is dark half the time.  Perhaps because I can’t seem to sleep until sunrise any more, I spend quite a lot of even summertime in the dark.  Since there’s much that can only be done in the light of day, I explore how darkness might contribute to our spiritual growth.  Although horror often receives a naughty reputation, it too is about exploring the dark for meaning.  Today, at this latitude, we’ll have only nine hours and sixteen minutes of light.  It’s easy to believe illumination might never return.  Humans have created rituals to assure ourselves, to encourage the courses of nature to continue as they have for countless eons before we ever evolved.  While we’re in the darkness, perhaps we should consider making friends with it.  It’s quiet.  And shy.  And if we don’t learn to live with it, half of our time may never blossom.


Solstice Now!

Who owns the solstice? Whoever it is, I wish we could just get it over with. The darkness falls before I step into my 5 p.m. class. It is dark when I drive home. The next morning, leaving for my 8:30 a.m. class, I drive to school in the dark. Back at Nashotah House a colleague once said his wife became “almost pagan” in her yearning to pass the winter solstice and head toward the time of year when light prevails over darkness. My wife pointed out a CNN story concerning a New Jersey billboard sponsored by American Atheists. The billboard, just on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York, shows the star of Bethlehem, the manger and the wise men. The inscription reads: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season celebrate REASON.” Naturally, motorists are up in arms. Who owns the solstice?

Before the Thanksgiving leftovers even hit the fridge, Christmas season has begun. Santa always ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it official. Since we are capitalists, we do what the red-suited captain of industry says: shop. As long ago as A Charlie Brown Christmas complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have reverberated through the media. Personal properties and billboards enjoin us to “keep Christ in Christmas” and remember “the reason for the season.” Economists tell us to spend more to assist the sluggish economy. Meanwhile the light continues to fade; the days grow darker. Why confuse the issue with religiosity? Why not just spend some money on others, feel the release of endorphins, and be thankful?

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The church selected December to celebrate the event because the shortest day of the year, for those north of the equator, had long been a time of fervent wishes for the return of light. The first-century Christian rivals, the Gnostics, believed in the continual, literal struggle between light and darkness. When sidelined by Orthodox Christianity, the torch was taken up by those who celebrated Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Hogmanay, Yule, Sol Invictus or any number of other winter festivals. Christmas was a relative late-comer to the celebrations that welcome the resurrection of the sun. So drivers from New Jersey should take it easy. The solstice is everybody’s holiday. I just wish that whoever’s in charge would give us all a little more light.