The Setting Sun at 4pm
Yesterday I realized just how long the nights are during this time of the year. My house was flooded with the bright afternoon sunshine and then, as if someone turned off a celestial switch, the darkness descended and the temperature dropped ten degrees as the sun went behind the mountain at 4 o'clock in the afternoon - not to rise again until almost 7 the next morning.
I've been thinking about these long December nights. It's no wonder that, over the ages, different peoples, cultures and religions have celebrated festivals of light at this time of year - bonfires and candles ablaze to ward off the gathering winter darkness.
We put lights on evergreen trees, lights in city parks, colorful dazzling lights on homes and in town squares, and we celebrate the winter-festivals - Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas.
And yet for many people, the bright lights, the candles and the festivities of the season aren't able to prevent a feeling of gathering gloom that comes when the nights are long and there is more darkness than light.
Many people (I maybe one of them) have an actual physiological response to the lengthening darkness of the December nights. The brain chemistry seems to change in response to so much darkness, causing people to feel sad and melancholy.
All my life I have been lighting the candles of an Advent wreath at this time of year - I have found it to be a very uplifting custom to light symbolic candles in the darkest time of the year. This week we will light the third of the four Advent candles. Unlike the other candles, this one is colored "rose" and symbolizes "joy."
It is a powerful icon for me, that in the time of the year when the nights are longest and the darkness is greatest, we light a candle that symbolizes "joy."
It took me a while to get to the point of understanding what "joy" actually means. For one thing, being joyful is not the same as being "happy." When I light a candle of "joy," I am not saying, "put on a happy face." In fact I think you can feel sad and even be afraid, and yet be joyful.
The other day, while I was reading some of Nelson Mandela's writings, I came across a phrase that actually gave me some insight about what "joy" in the darkness means. Commenting on his many years locked up in an 8'x8' prison cell, Mandela said:
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear
but the triumph over it.
We can't stop the long nights from happening. We can't close our eyes and make the darkness go away. We may not be able to stop the sadness from creeping in. There are times when we will feel sad and times when we will all suffer and times when everyone feels afraid. There are times when we all experience a "dark night of the soul."
We can't always be happy, but we can all have the courage to triumph over whatever darkness comes our way; and this is exactly why we can be joyful.
In these long December nights, I light the rose-colored candle of "joy." It stands against the darkness and proclaims that joy is what happens when you are courageous enough to triumph over fear.
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