“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah 9:2 about the coming of humankind’s savior in the Old Testament. It’s Christmas Eve, the celebration of Jesus’ birth. According to Christian tradition, a brilliant star emerged from the dark sky on this night 2011 years ago to signal that the light of Christ had come into the world. But it’s also time for the celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of light. The menorah, with its nine beautiful candles, is the focal point for this special holiday. The Hindu people also recently celebrated a 4 day festival of light called Diwali. Each day of Diwali has its own tale, legend, and myth to tell. My favorite is Amavasya, the second day of Diwali that tells the story of Lord Vishnu, who in his dwarf incarnation vanquished the tyrant Bali, and banished him to hell. Bali was allowed to return to earth once a year to light millions of lamps in the hope of dispelling darkness and ignorance, leaving in its place the radiance of love and wisdom. What a beautiful image! I am comforted that there are so many paths to spirituality. With so many different people and cultures, it’s not surprising so many different stories exist that we can choose to adopt as our “religion”.
Why is light so central to all of the major religions? I believe it’s because these stories of light represent the beautiful glow that illuminates our spiritual essence. We’ve all heard that the eyes are the window to a person’s soul. The eyes are where we see another’s inner light and love. It doesn’t matter whether a person is young or old, sick or vibrant, or beautiful or ugly. If you take the time to look, listen, understand, and truly connect, you can be blinded by another’s light.
I think it’s no surprise that these celebrations of light come at the darkest part of our year. This can be a tough time to get through. As a primary care physician, I’ve seen countless patients come in over the past couple of months with what I like to scientifically call “the blahs”. All joking aside, human beings clearly do better in the presence of light. Psychiatry has even formalized the condition with the cute acronym, SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. But there’s really nothing cute about feeling the drop in energy, mood, and well-being that affect millions of people during the months surrounding the winter solstice. So the creators of our ancient celebrations knew what they were doing when they placed all these celebrations at the darkest part of our year.
At Christmas time I seek out non-traditional Christmas music. At this point I invite you to listen to my all-time favorite, “Mary Did You Know” by Clay Aiken. Yes, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that in addition to being a pop queen, I also like Clay Aiken. Will the teen-age girl in my head ever grow up?! I kind of hope not. 😉
I find the music to be hauntingly beautiful, but the lyrics speak to me even more strongly. I love the image he weaves of Mary looking down at the mystery of her baby boy, perhaps because I can so vividly remember those first tender moments with my own sons.
I am touched by the love between a mother and her newborn child because I think this represents human connection in its purest form. When do people stop loving each other so freely? When do we learn to hide our tender side with sarcasm and games? People put up so many barriers to intimacy in such a wide variety ways. Regardless of your personal religious beliefs, no one can debate that Jesus’ teachings, with all their layers of symbolism and imagery, are powerful. Jesus said, “Let the children come with me because the ones who are like them can enter the kingdom of heaven.” I don’t care to speculate about what happens after we die, but I live every day with the goal of creating my own heaven on earth. I believe loving with open hearts, like children do, is the best way to make this happen. Don Miguel Ruiz says it best in The Mastery of Love, “When the heart speaks, even with the resistance of the head, something inside you changes; your heart opens another heart, and true love is possible.”
As a physician, I also gravitate to the image of Christ the healer. But Jesus doesn’t heal with a prescription pad, he heals with love and forgiveness. I also love the reference in the song to Jesus calming the storm with his hands. Who doesn’t feel at times like they’re living within a storm? Stop a moment and think of a person who was there to calm that storm for you. That person allowed the God inside themselves to connect with the God inside of you. I’m grateful that I get to do this for patients almost every day. When a patient comes into my office in the midst of their own personal “storm”, if I know them well enough, I roll up on my chair and hold their hand as we talk and problem solve. In these moments I can almost see my light pour out of me and into their scared and empty places. I often can’t fix what’s wrong, but I know my patients frequently leave feeling a little more hopeful, a little more centered, and with a little more faith that they can navigate their next personal hurdle. This is why I do what I do. I know my happiness hinges not on the love that other people feel for me, but on the love I feel for other people. I tell people that I’m a connection junkie. The feeling of euphoria that comes after a true connection is made can’t be beat.
So when I celebrate any holiday, what I’m really celebrating is a festival of human light. In these months of darkness around the winter solstice, we need to let our light shine all the more brightly!