Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Citizen Article (appeared on Saturday, December 25, 2010)
December is the “candle” month on the multifaith calendar. It started with candle vigils for World AIDS Day on December first, and Jews lighting candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah. As the month progressed, candles have been lit by many people to commemorate the winter solstice; and of course, many Christians lit candles at Christmas Eve services. This was immediately followed by African-Americans lighting seven candles on the kinara for Kwanzaa.
There is a lesson to be learned from all these candles. Scholars of religion, as well as anthropologists studying
human development describe this religious impulse as part of what they call homo religiosus.
Underneath the veneer of our diverse religious traditions there is a common human quest for hope during life’s
most foreboding times. It transcends all our differences, even as it undergirds all of our religious stories. It is
symbolized by the yearning for light during the darkest time of the year. This is the meta-story underneath all of our
religious stories. Scholars of religious history believe that one of the early traits was the belief that human beings
could influence the forces of nature; that through their actions, people could create changes or have influence the
conditions that would be favorable for their survival. That is why, before there were candles, there were bonfires
(originally “bone fires” of sacrifice) which were ignited to placate the forces of the universe, otherwise known as God
(or the Gods in polytheistic cultures).
Later, these stories would have agricultural implications—hence the sacrifices meant to appease the forces of
the universe so that next year’s harvest would be bountiful. However, before the harvest implications, there was the
simple prayer/request for light. This is why, to this day, virtually all of our religious and cultural traditions with origins in the northern hemisphere have some form of candle ritual during December.
It is easy to lose sight of the common human origins when we are inundated with news stories about how one
religion, culture, or political system is superior or “chosen by God” above all others. This is one of the pertinent
arguments made by some of the “New Atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens. While Hitchens would use this point to do away with much of organized religion, I would argue that we would do better to view our different religions as merely separate veneers placed on top of the common human substructure. By digging down and celebrating what we share, our common roots, or, what makes us all human beings, rather than what separates us and makes us different, we could take enormous steps toward a more peaceful world. It would be one in which we would coexist harmoniously as human beings.
One of the best examples of what can happen when we focus on our shared human experience goes back
nearly a century ago. According to legend, it took place during Christmas Eve, 1917, in the trenches of France during the Great War, later to be called World War One. There was no scheduled “Christmas truce” that year. However, on Christmas Eve, some of the soldiers in the German trenches began singing “Stille Nacht.” The American troops recognized the tune, and began singing “Silent Night.” According to the story, the troops serenaded each other, each singing the same tune in their own languages. For that one night, there was a respite from the stench of poison gas and the gore of bayonet charges. According to some accounts, the soldiers emerged from their separate trenches and wished one another a merry Christmas! It is amazing what can happen when we focus on what we hold in common, rather than what makes us different.
Let us keep these stories in mind as we put away our various candelabras and Christmas Eve candles with
their wax catchers until next December. The hands that have lit these various fires emerged from our common
humanity, just as our yearning for wisdom and understanding is human. There are some who ask, “Why can’t the spirit of Christmas (or Hanukkah, the Solstice, or Kwanzaa) exist year round?” I believe that it can. It will not happen because we recite any one particular prayer. This demands “prayer turned into action.” By keeping in mind the fact that all of us are in this together, sharing the human experience, we will create greater opportunities for peace and overcoming the ignorance of prejudice by tilting the axis of the world in direction of a more universal compassion.