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Light Overcoming

John 18:33-37, John 1

Thanksgiving is over. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have ceased. Giving Tuesday came to an end.

Now what?

Advent.

Whaaaaat?

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

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.

lord_muruganSkanda 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.

skanda.jpegWe 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.

skanda1

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.

But why?

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

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/festivals

Photos courtesy of Soumya Sitaraman and Usha Kris, respectively author and photographer of Follow the Hindu Moon, hindumoon.com.

 

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Remembering

Matthew 5:1-12   NRSV

Halloween is a time of year that brings back many memories for people.

And if you are one of those who gives out candy to kids who come to your door, then probably every year you remember when you dressed up and carried a bag that would eventually fill up with a sugar-laced mass.

candyComaCandy Coma.

Even so, for some, hearing the word Halloween makes them cringe a little. Perhaps it’s because they saw the movie by the same name and that creepy piano theme music makes them remember a scary character. Still others cringe at Halloween because they think that it might be some evil celebration that certainly Christians should not participate in. Others go to the other extreme and set up their homes like haunted houses or witch’s cauldrons, equipped with fake, impaled heads, plastic witches, mummies; scary sounds [that can also be quite annoying, I might add] playing on a continuous loop.

And yes, some fanatics even have a Spirit of Halloween charge card.

Okay, so extremism aside, let’s look at reality.

The name Halloween is old English. It refers to the night before All Hallow’s Day, better known as All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1. All Saints is actually a Christian celebration of Protestants and Catholics, remembering the faithful people of all ages who have passed away, yet who lived lives of love, generosity, faith, and humility. This celebration of people’s lives and service goes back to the 8th century.[1]

Hallowe’en is more like Christmas Eve than you could ever imagine.

Hallowe’en was the preparation night for people to get ready for the feast and party on All Saint’s Day, which was called Hallowmas, just like Christmas. So on Halloween night, people lit candles and prayed; maybe sang songs; hmmm…sound familiar?

But these traditions were and are not Christian by nature or origin.

The ancient Druids, from what we know, were a priestly class of Celtic people living all over Western Europe during the Iron Age, which may have begun around 1200 BCE. Druid culture included a celebration for the beginning of the New Year on Nov. 1st. When the Romans started conquering Western Europe, the Druid Celts combined traditions with the Romans.

And they changed their name; or at least the history books did.
The “Roman Celts” as they were called, started a new tradition on the eve of Samhain [end of summer]. They believed that evil spirits were unleashed to create havoc on the earth on this particular night.

Or maybe they knew what Costco and Wegmans are like on a Sunday afternoon in the fall?

CostcoLOR wegmansSWAnyway, to keep these evil spirits from causing too much havoc, the Roman Celts had a great idea: let’s put on scary costumes made of animal skin to scare those spirits away!

And so they did.
You can connect the dots.

The religion of Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, mixing in old traditions as it went. People lit fires on Halloween night to honor and remember the dead, all the while wearing costumes to scare evil spirits.
But the Middle Ages led to the craziness we know today—the witches, fairies, ghosts, and spirits. And then the legend of this poor guy named Jack who was kicked out of heaven for being bad and even kicked out of hell for joking around too much with the devil. Who knew that the devil didn’t have a sense of humor? In cartoons and such he always seems to be laughing with a sinister chuckle. Oh well.

Anyway, this Jack got his punishment: he had to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day.
Connect the dots again: Jack O’Lantern?

And it wasn’t until the 17th century in Ireland that a certain tradition of poorer folks going from house to house asking for money began. All they wanted was to buy food for the big feast on All Saint’s Day.

Trick or treat, you’re so funny; now please give us a bit of money…

I think you get the idea—how all these traditions, legends, and stories mixed together over the years and formed new ones.
And of course, some traditions are easily marketed. Commercialism has made Halloween into another shopping season.

Meanwhile, the traditions with stronger meaning tend to be less marketable; they require more thought and even some spirituality.

And yet, all over the world, people still practice remembering traditions.

For example, in Mexico and in other parts of the Americas, people observe El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Children, youth, and adults prepare homemade “altars” to remember their loved ones, decorating them with flowers and candles, their favorite foods, or other items to remind them of those who have gone on to the next life. Thousands of candles illuminate cemeteries and homes and huge crowds gather in large communities to sing, remember life, and celebrate.

In other cultures around the world, people remember those who have passed on and celebrate their lives.
Here are some striking photos of these remembering traditions from around the globe:

MexicoDiaDeMuertos budapestAllSaints Mexico-City-Mexico-Miniat-003 Mexico-City-MexicoA-man-d-006 Croatiacommemorate-All-012 PeruDayDead MexicoSanGregorio GuatemalaDead Perucemetary HaitiDead Spaindead An-Indian-Christian-famil-027 An-Indian-Christian-famil-028Remembering those who have gone before us, and pausing to do so—is counter-culture. Typically, holidays in the West do not include much pausing at all, but are in fact busier. Many, many people will not take even a few moments [much less two days] to reflect, pray, light candles, sing, eat with friends and family, and to remember.

Perhaps that’s why we struggle so much with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not bumper sticker material or perfect for your newest t-shirt design. Jesus’ teachings, like those of any spiritual leader, require time and effort to unpack, study, and think about.

While the world keeps trying to convince us that we ought to fight with each other and compete for resources so that we will be in a certain social class, if we pause, we can hear something different.

We can hear from this Jesus of Nazareth that the path of humility is the one to walk; that our so-called important accomplishments are not so important.

That taking risks for the sake of others is important; that forgiving is far worth the time and energy; that loving people unconditionally as they are can move psychological mountains; that it’s better and more healthy to be skeptical of what the world says is normal; that it is oh so beneficial for you and for everyone if you stop judging others; and that if we do something good for a living creature [whether animal, plant, or human], without expecting anything in return—something positive spreads.

I don’t believe in saints [at least I don’t believe that there were or are certain people who are religiously more important or spiritually superior].

But I do think that we have an invitation to remember.

We’ll need to slow down our busy minds and bodies for a moment, though.
We will need to remember that where there is death, life is right next door.
And vice versa.

We’ll have to admit that the Jesus we often talk about in churches is not the Jesus of Scripture, who especially blessed the kinds of people who are typically left out of most churches.

And if we light candles, sings songs, say prayers, visit cemeteries, meditate, or think about it deeply—we’ll need to remember that blessing is not immunity from pain or loss or doubt. Remembering to be blessed is also remembering to be honest about what you feel, what you’re going through, and not ignoring it.

Such a practice will also help us to see others and their pain, suffering, and sense of loss.

And such remembering can lead us to the real blessing of wholeness [Shalom], recognizing our full humanity and that the Spirit lives and moves in us all. Such remembering can lead to contentment and an authentic joy in life that does not depend on all the external circumstances.

So friends, remember.

[1] 1. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saint’s Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1974) pp.190-97.

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