Light plays a starring role in this dark season. In the Christian tradition, light literally takes the form of a star. This image of a star shining over a little barn, guiding shepherds and wise men to the divine child sleeping within has become a kind of resonating question or koan for me, thanks to an outspoken child of my own.
Many years ago, feeling that our Christmas in Brooklyn was missing something, I had the inspired idea of driving my daughter, husband, and mother-in-law up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and attend mass across the street at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The cathedral seemed to be full to the great doors with European tourists. The beautiful strains of Italian filled the air. It was the very epicenter of Christmas in New York, and we managed seats close to the great alter. A row of solemn-faced priests flanked the front of the church, ready to serve communion to the vast throng of faithful. My tiny elderly mother-in-law, who was born and spent her childhood in the passionately Catholic island country of Malta, had gone to high school on a scholarship at St. Patrick’s and she sat with hands folded, looked radiant. Not so my 8 or 9-year-old daughter. She writhed unhappily in her seat. She grimaced at the huge tortured crucifix hanging above us.
“Has anyone looked at this man?” she asked in a loud voice. “He doesn’t look very happy, and we’re supposed to follow this…” Before she could continue this loud line of questioning in front of her grandmother, the priests, the international Catholic throng, coward Tracy pulled her out of the pew, grabbed her by the arm and kind of perp walked her over to an almost life-sized manger set up in a corner of the great cathedral. Feeling as if I had to do something to instill a sense of occasion if nothing else (she had already told me she preferred nature to religion and would rather spend Christmas in Africa with the animals), I told her the story of the nativity.
“A star was over the manger?” she asked. “This was the sign that he was the son of God?” I nodded but I felt a little thrill, as if I knew that this idyllic Christmas exchange was unfolding a little too smoothly and falsely. “A star in a sun, Mommy,” she said in a resonating voice. “This is like saying the sun is over my house, I must be divine. Isn’t that a little, I don’t know, selfish?”
For years now, this non-rational question occasionally wells up inside: “The sun is over my house, does this mean I’m divine?” It has come to point towards that moment of calm and patient abiding—a moment of opening inside to truly see the beauty and mystery of the world and the miracle of life and of being part of it here and now. It is a vibrating question that changes form and emphasis and doesn’t end in a simple yes: the light is divine and life is miraculous and how can I find that sleeping child within?
In a few days it will be the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights. The name is derived from a Hebrew word which means “to dedicate.” During Hanukkah, the Jewish people commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the “Miracle of The Oil”. After the Temple had been won by the Maccabees from Antiochus IV Epiphanes, only a day’s worth of consecrated olive oil was left to to fuel the eternal flame. Miraculously, it remained burning for eight days, which was just enough time to make more of the oil.
What does it take to make more oil? As an outsider, I think of the oil as conscious attention—that special quiet, dedicated attention that allows us to consecrate life one moment at a time, to make a temple of the body, heart, and mind, to let the light in. The other night, I was trying to do assume a (for me) difficult posture in a sacred dance class and the teacher said “notice how patience can make you quick, can help you arrive on time.” And I thought of the miracle of the oil. Patience can make the light of attention expand—can make time and life seem to expand. There is more to you and more to life than you could ever imagine. May you experience the miracle of light this holiday season. May the sun shine over your house. May it light your way to the sacred space or the divine child within.