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Light in the darkness

I love to be aware of the changing light as each season gives way to the next: spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter. Sometimes now, as I grow older, I note the times of sunrise and sunset in my calendar, watching one season gently curve into the next season.

It’s not a coincidence that the date of Christmas follows closely on the heels of the winter solstice. Through the ages, people have observed the changing seasons, the days with darkness fast on their heels, coming before it’s time for dinner. When I was younger and not conscious of how quickly one season rolls into the next, -and how unrelenting the changing of light was/is, I complained as I left work at 4:30 in the afternoon, the sky already in nighttime darkness. Night falls early in northern climates. It takes the strong spirit of a human being to hold on to hope when darkness is the longest part of each day.
No wonder the ancient people honoured the darkest days. No wonder they lit fires, bringing warmth to the darkness. No wonder our ancestors danced in the darkness, dancing to remind the light to return!

No wonder that people of different faiths honor this time of darkness, before the Light comes!

Thankfully, each cycle of the year continues to roll in a circular fashion, bringing us back to the time of darkness, not stopping, but rolling on, the end of this year, the beginning of the next.

As Christians, we honor this season of darkness by telling the story of the Child, born into a dark world to bring Light to wounded hearts. We tell the story again and again, because, like human beings of all times and places – we need to be reminded. We hold on to hope, the promise of the child whose life lays before them, and in that way, we hold on to hope for ourselves. In a Season of darkness, we come with our begging bowls, begging for Light.

Merry Christmas!

Reflections at Sunset, 12/2022, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert
beauty, community, reflecting

Christmas to Me

On the Saturday evening of the weekend before Christmas, my husband and I spend the evening with a group of people together in the sanctuary of a small, aging church building in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. In an area of the country where more folks are “unchurched” than in areas where hundreds of people – young and old – gather in large auditoriums to hear loud, drum-backed music while strobe lights flash overhead – we sit together for two hours in old wooden pews, taking in Christmas.

A Tongan woman dances to a song from her people as a two year old, born in the United States to parents whose native language is Tamil, born and raised in the South of India, runs behind the dancing woman, up the stairs to the chancel, where a Christmas tree stands at the center, its lights changing from white to multi-colored, and the little one dances in front of the tree as the rest of us smile and giggle at her antics.

A line of Filipinos, the women all wearing the same plaid winter shirt, sing a song from their country. A Korean choir proudly sings “He is Everything to Me,” standing in a line. A five year old girl – the oldest in the group of children who stand before us – sings all the verses of “Feliz Navidad,” the smaller children fidgeting, not sure where to look, as the mother of a two year old walks her little girl up to sit with the other children, all dressed in their Christmas best. A Tamil couple who spent most of the past year in India with family sing a song in their native language.

All the while during the concert unfolding before us, toddlers meet in the center aisle of the church, looking into each others’ faces, holding hands and swaying to the music they hear. Their parents smile as they watch their children, at the same time, their heads nodding to the Christmas music, the other entertainment of the evening.

A well dressed, handsome young man – accustomed to being in the spotlight – walks to the front of the sanctuary, where he reads “Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981; American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader). The young man graces us with the African American Gospel song, “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child,” and as he leaves the front of the sanctuary, he is followed by a couple from India, singing the Malayalam Song, “Christmas Raavananja Neram.” Their daughter, 2 months old – a child they had waited many years to welcome into their lives – sleeps in the infant seat her mother had carried with her to the front of the church.

We are grateful when the Pastor, a native of Korea and a professor of preaching, uses his time at the pulpit to offer a few words of Christmas blessing, and then sits again among the rest of us in the pews. Not much needs to said when we see Christmas unfolding here, right before our eyes.

Over the course of the evening, we hear Christmas songs and carols in 10 languages.

And then – as the music quiets – Korean women, all dressed in red for the occasion, pass out little white candles, and we sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” The lights are darkened as the candles are held high, sparkling.

Soon, we crowd into the center aisle of the small sanctuary, greeting one another, many with elbow-bumps – in honor of Covid – and we are filled with joy, gratitude, for being together to bring Christmas to one another, a gift.

Christmas Lights on View Place, December, 2022, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

reflecting, remembering

Longing for Cozy

I left Wisconsin to live in California on December 26, 1981. I had moved out of my own apartment to stay with my parents at the beginning of December as I made the transition from full time work to full time student, at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t know that I would be moving “forever,” to not return to the place that had been my homeland, the land of my people, for several generations.

For a few years after I made the move to Northern California, I did not return to Wisconsin at holiday time. I stayed in Berkeley and later, in the parsonage at Pleasanton with my new husband, Jeff. I recall vividly the first winter I spent in Pleasanton, as I stood in the driveway in my blazer, preparing to drive to my first parish, in San Jose. I was surprised – here I was a blazer as my top layer in January – no boots, no wool cap and gloves!

My Dad died in April of 1986, and I was able to be with my parents for a few days over the holiday season after Christmas the year before. One day during my visit, Milwaukee had a wonderful snow-fall, a snow-fall without wind, when the large flakes fell straight from the sky to the sidewalks and streets below. I walked over to a coffee shop not far from my parents’ apartment on Appleton Avenue, taking in the white stuff as it landed on me, looking at the falling snow with wonder. That’s the best kind of snow – gentle,calm, falling silently to the streets of the city. And I didn’t have to shovel! I enjoyed the coziness of the coffee shop and set out to walk again to my parents’ place.

For a few years after I moved to Northern California, I tried – without any success – to bring on the feeling of “cozy,” during the holidays. As I write today, Oakland is getting a much needed, and never-enough rain, after many years of draught. This is as close to cozy as I’ll get, I’m sure, the sound of tires driving in the rain, the tree lights lit, heat from the furnace warming the house. One holiday season, a few days before Christmas, after my father had passed and my mother made the trip to spend the holiday season with Jeff and me in the Bay Area, she and I stopped on Christmas Eve to have a lunch together at a cafe. Inside the cafe, Christmas music played on the sound system, and we enjoyed our quiet time together. And that day, as I sat with Mom in a cafe, longing for cozy, I realized that I could never bring on Christmas the way it had been, in my memory. Those days were gone. My life had changed, and with the changes I had lost something I’d never have again, as happy as I was in my new home, in my new life.

I suppose that as I grow older, I will be longing for Christmas every year, longing for a bit of cold, for a snow – silent, lovely – and of course, for the people who lived those Christmases with me, gone now, for a long, long time.

Christmas tree, 2022. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

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Magic

Magic seems to permeate this season of the year, the time when the darkness descends upon us – literally – and we are full into the darkness. In my life and spiritual practice, it is certain that when I descend into the darkest place, the light, the new emerges. The promise of those who have gone before is that there will be light, there will be another day. And another day arrives, new – Magic.

When I was a child, my sense of wonder provided a kind of Magic. On Christmas Eve, my non-churched family attended a church to be present for the children’s program. I was among the children who stood to recite the Christmas story, verse by verse, for the gathered adults, the sanctuary filled with lights, the light of candles, the smells and sounds of a place with a cold winter: cold hands and faces, warm wool outerwear. What I remember about those Christmas Eve times is the sense of Magic I held as a child – that Magic itself something holy, something that would pass away, away from me as I entered puberty and young adulthood. Nothing can replace the Magic of that time and place, still clear in my memory.

A few days ago, as the light of the day was ending, Jeff finished his work on the strip of land we call, “the Panhandle,” where he has lately installed a neighborhood library – a beautiful wooden box complete with a glass door that a friend crafted to suit the vision Jeff and I had. As soon as the library was installed, a few books appeared. One day, I watched as a woman I did not know stopped her car and delivered several books to the library. Our vision has come to life! Our vision is useful! Our vision is beautiful!

That day, as the sun set over San Francisco Bay, barely visible from our windows on View Place, Jeff stepped into the kitchen and looked out to the West as the sun was setting. He had cut the branches of a tree in our yard that had hid the site we were seeing. Jeff called me over to stand with him at the window. And there – there! – as if the moment was for us alone – our own screen on the sun setting over the Bay – the outline of downtown San Francisco, coated in grey fog and lit by the lights of the City – shone before us. Magic! I named our view, “The City of God,” and we stood for a few moments as the vision faded, as the sun sank lower into the Pacific beyond the City. Then – gone.

The simple gifts of light, of a tree with golden leaves about to fall, of my cat who comes to sit close to me on the couch to receive a good petting, of an old recipe for borscht that gives us a week of meals. These simple gifts are Magic to me.

“The City of God,” photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, Oakland, 12/2022