Every year we live through patterns that have the potential to fill our lives with meaning. But since our connection with the natural world is tempered by technology, our relationship to tradition is tenuous, and we are all-the-time busy—we are prone to miss out on the wonder of it. How can we allow the spirit of the Christmas season to more profoundly touch us?
Nature is the first teacher. Since the beginning of summer, darkness has been steadily encroaching on the light. If you didn’t mark its slow advance then, surely you notice it now. The day has been growing weaker against the power of the night. However, when you awoke this glorious morning, you had passed through the longest night of the year—the winter solstice. Today is the first day you know for sure that the light will not be overcome.
Hope can be as small as a prick of light in this season of short days, like the first flickering flame of a candle-lighting service which begins small and surrounded by darkness. Oftentimes in life, the light is hidden away. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christ is depicted as being born in a cave hidden under a mountain. During Christmas, we Christians celebrate the incarnation of the Light of the World—the divine hidden in human flesh.
The theme of hiddenness is worthy of our reflection this time of year. For our traditions surrounding Christmas are all about this. Tradition is thus our second teacher. After setting up the tree, a string of lights is ensconsed within the branches. Then gifts are concealed with ornate paper and hiden under the tree. Other gifts are hidden inside stockings, which are placed on the mantle. In Mexico, it’s customary to share the Rosca de Reyes (King’s cake) with friends. Within that ring of sweet bread is hidden a baby Christ made of wax.
On this same theme, I visited a Roman Catholic basilica this week to see the sanctuary adorned for Christmas. It was stunningly beautiful. At the altar, one could see that the central crucifix had been concealed behind a huge star. Why was Christ hidden behind a star? Why was He born in a cave underneath a star? Why do we celebrate Christmas during the darkest nights of the year? Why do we hide all of our gifts? There’s a pattern to all this and it’s to our own detriment we don’t pause to think about what’s going on.