Thanksgiving is over. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have ceased. Giving Tuesday came to an end.
Yes, the season of Advent began on November 29th for Western Christians. I have to say Western Christians, because the season of Advent is indeed a Western creation, and it would not be a stretch to say that our observance of Advent in the U.S. is its own thing, too.
We actually shouldn’t assume that Christians around the world observe Advent at all. In fact, Eastern Christians [the first ones, mind you], don’t observe Advent at all. Instead, they observe what’s called the Nativity Fast. Depending on which Eastern culture we’re talking about, Christians abstain from eating any meats or animal-related products. In essence, the Nativity Fast puts one on a vegan diet. Some Eastern Christians fast for 40 days [an important number, of course, and the same number of days in the season of Lent]. They usually start the fast in mid November. A strict fast occurs on December 24th—no food is consumed, if physically possible for people.
The emphasis on fasting is not about depriving the body of nutrients or some kind of punishment. Fasting is a spiritual act, one that humbles the person doing the fasting. It allows someone to make deep connections between her body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is supposed to help us appreciate the food provided to us. Also during the Nativity Fast, Christians are encouraged to give of themselves to others—in the form of financial resources, time, or talents. In essence, Eastern Christians’ Nativity Fast is similar to Muslims’ observance of Ramadan.
I bring this up, because each November and December I feel that our U.S. version of Advent has become more and more of a race and less and less of a spiritual observance. I’m not going to spend a lot of time focusing on why that is—I think you can make your own conclusions just based on observation. But I do hope to provide you with some opportunities to claim Advent as a time to reflect spiritually and to focus on treating people and all living things with respect, love, and compassion. After all, that’s the ONLY reason to even observe any religious or spiritual season.
It’s supposed to make us better people.
So whether you choose to fast in some way, or to give of your time, energy and gifts to others this season—do so because it encourages you and brings peace into your life—not out of any obligation.
During Advent, there are a variety of symbols. One symbol is of course candles, which obviously represent light. Advent is indeed a season of light. And this should not be a surprise, because this time of year, other religious traditions also focus on light.
For example, recently, ten of us from the United Church of Christ in Warminster went to Bharatiya Hindu/Jain Temple to observe and participate in a special festival that takes place right after Diwali.
Diwali or Deepavali, is the “festival of lights.” It is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn (where we live, i.e. the northern hemisphere) or in the spring (southern hemisphere). Do you like candles? Well, Diwali might be for you! Actually, Diwali is for everyone, not only Hindus. People who celebrate Diwali? Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and yes–Christians.
But our group got to participate in a unique festival native to the South Indian state of Tamil: the Skanda Shashti festival.
Skanda Shashti, typically a six-day festival, commemorates the destruction of evil by the Kartikeya also called Lord Murugan, Subramanya, son of Shiva, and is celebrated with the enactment of Sura Samharam, a story of struggle, triumph, and enlightenment.
The pujas [Sanskrit for reverence or worship] end with a victory celebration of spiritual light over darkness. Many fast, pray, and reflect during the festival. One prayer is a six-part prayer for protection, called the Skanda Sashti Kavacham, which is chanted. Six is a number associated with the divine presence.
Keep in mind that Hindus are often misunderstood. Many think Hindus are polytheistic [meaning that they worship many gods]; others assume that they are idol worshipers because of the various statues and representations of deities. This is not the case. In fact, Hindus do not worship a stone or metal idol as god. They worship god through the image. A good illustration from a helpful Hindu publication puts it this way:
Worship may be likened to using a telephone to talk across long distances with another person. When you do that, you’re not talking to the phone, right? You’re just using the phone to talk to the person.
The focus of what we saw on Tuesday at the temple was on Skanda, the god of many attributes, often shown as having six faces and twelve arms. Skanda is the commader of the army of light, defender of righteousness. Skanda is a healer and guide towards light, and is known to have a childlike love and compassion for all people.
We saw various ceremonial acts, including a small statue of Muruga being bathed in an array of sacred substances including milk, yoghurt, honey, sandlepaste and vibhuti.
Then, a teenager from our congregation and I were asked by one of the priests to join others who were carrying one of the representations of Skanda. Here are some pictures of the dramatic presentation in India.
It was a fun and meaningful experience.
I am always of the mind that storytelling via interactive drama, puppets, colorful costumes, and songs is the kind of storytelling that impacts us the most. I also think that in any form of worship, symbols, smells, sounds, visuals, and hands-on participation enhance the experience and our connection to the Divine.
But religious observances aren’t about just going through the motions—lighting some candles around a wreath each week, singing some familiar carols, and going Christmas shopping.
It’s another thing entirely to view different seasons of the year as opportunities to be enlightened and to serve—to grow as people.
When Christians observe the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is an opportunity to observe the light in all of us, and in others. It is a chance to be stubborn about light, saying and showing that light can overcome evil, despair, and apathy in us and in the world.
The stories that Christians tell are colorful, interactive, and meaningful, too—if we decide to embrace them as we are, with what we have.
Jesus, Jeshua, was known to many as a lord, a teacher, a friend, a healer, a prophet, a spiritual leader, and even some considered him a king.
Yes, it can be tempting for us in the Western world to behave just like Pilate in John’s Gospel story, to only think and talk about Jesus in the ways that others tell us to, or to limit our perspectives to small religious and doctrinal views, convincing ourselves that we are somehow entitled or more deserving.
A question I want you to consider is this:
Will you believe something just because someone told you to?
Or, will you ask questions on your own, look for light on your own journey, and come up with our own conclusions as to how you will be light for others?
In the end, Pilate’s best question was:
What is truth?
And one of the answers we get in John’s Gospel is that truth is logos, or, in other words, truth is light.
So give yourself a fresh start this season, wherever you are. Start seeking this truth, this light, right now, in your own life. Start looking for this light in others. Look for this light in the world.
Find more info about Skanda Shashti and Hinduism here: https://vegeyum.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/skanda-shashti/
Info gathered from Hindu Festival Outreach
Photos courtesy of Soumya Sitaraman and Usha Kris, respectively author and photographer of Follow the Hindu Moon, hindumoon.com.