On the scale of our human history, rituals like putting up Christmas trees, lighting menorahs, reading Hafiz, and baking rice dumplings are new. We, humans, have celebrated the earthly repercussions of our orbit longer than we’ve celebrated virtually anything. Before Christmas and Hanukkah, before monotheism or any other kind of theism, our ancestors were staring up at the stars, trying to gather clues about the changing of the seasons, the passing of time, and what the darkness might bring. The idea of marking the longest, coldest night with the knowledge that the warmth and light is not too far off, that is ancient. And no matter where we’re from, what religion we are, or to what ethnic group we belong, we can be sure that our ancestors, all of our ancestors, contemplated Earth’s place in the universe with awe. For them, it was sacred. And it still can be for us. Even more so because science has brought us a deeper understanding of the mystery and beauty of nature than our ancestors could have ever dreamed.
Usually, the words mythology and myth imply inaccuracy, but as Karen Armstrong writes in her book A Short History of Myth, “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.” In another of her books, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, she wrote, “A myth is never simply the story of a historical event. Rather it expresses a timeless truth underlying a people’s daily existence. A myth is always about now.” Every holiday we celebrate, every birthday and independence day, everything is as much about the present as it is about the past. We are both constantly changing and constantly repeating our oldest patterns.
Armstrong calls this concept “everywhen.” Nothing could be more “everywhen” than the revolving of the Earth around the sun. It’s the closest thing to a literal everywhen we are likely to experience. It’s been going on for 5 billion years, and in all likelihood will continue for billions more.
Tonight I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above them. Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark, considering snow.
— Linda Hogan from Dwellings
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel from The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
— Mary Oliver from Owls and Other Fantasies (“Starlings in Winter”)
- Guide to Advent 2019
- Born of a Star
- Threshold Of Winter
- The Longest Night
- Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light
- A Celebration of Winter Solstice
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