The Dance of Light and Dark

Posted on in On Our Radar by Isabella Price

The Christmas
Narrative Revisited


Darkness and light are symbols found across cultures and religions. They typically represent two opposing forces of nature, whether good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, or joy and despair. The book of Genesis, for example, begins with God’s separation of the light from the dark. Especially in the traditions of monotheistic orthodoxy, light is assigned the good, and darkness is assigned the evil. In contrast, the mystical-esoteric traditions view darkness in a much more positive light. As a metaphor of the great Unknown and our own psychological shadow, darkness is considered a gateway to inner transformation, rebirth, and illumination.

Similarly, mystery cults centered on Goddess worship did not have a negative view of darkness. Particularly dark-skinned mother goddesses are symbolic representations of the night, death, and all the mysteries that Western culture has collectively repressed for centuries due to the fear of death. As the great poet and mystic Rumi puts it so beautifully: “Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest. You must have shadow and light source both.” Similarly, the yin and yang symbol in Chinese Daoism expresses the ever-evolving interplay between the light and dark. Dark (yin) and light (yang) form a sacred circle, with each containing a part of the other’s essence within itself. Yin and yang are not divided by a straight line, which would create a rigid and absolute polarity. Instead, they are separated by an S curve, suggesting that the distinction is fluid, alternating, and continually at play.

In the Christian tradition, the archetypal theme of light coming into the darkness finds a powerful expression both in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke—in Matthew with the star shining as a messenger to the wise men, in Luke with the glory of God appearing in the night sky as the angels sing to the shepherds. The light metaphor is even more emphasized in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas where the Wisdom Jesus tells his disciples that they are “children of the light.” Gnostic Christians often referred to the true Self as a “spark,” and God as the divine light from which the spark emanated. Gnostics commonly believed that individual sparks of divine light had broken off from God and were trapped within the human body. In our ignorance, most of us humans are unaware that this spark of light exists within. Yet when we become aware of our true nature, we merge back into the divine light. The light metaphor in Christian scriptures also evokes the historical Buddha’s urging to “be a lamp unto yourself.”

Similarly, Buddhist legend tells us that all the worlds were flooded with light at the time of Buddha’s birth. The term “enlightenment” eventually became a metaphor of salvation, or liberation from the Samsaric cycle of suffering. The decision of the Christian church in the fourth century to celebrate Jesus’ birth near the time of the winter solstice is another powerful expression of this light symbolism. Jesus, born at the time of deepest darkness, announces the coming of the light. In fact, Jesus is the light in the darkness.

Yet the birthdate of December 25 is not derived from any event in the Christian story. Instead, Christmas has pagan roots that trace back to the third-century Roman festival of the rebirth of the “Invincible Sun,” celebrated around the winter solstice when the increased darkening ends and the lengthening of the daylight hours begins. And in the northern hemisphere, our pre-Christian ancestors filled their homes and meeting places with candles, decorated evergreen trees, rang bells, sang songs—all to call the sun back into the sky. Long before the celebration of the birth of the divine child, Jesus, the joy of new beginnings was celebrated at the time of the solstice by the birth of a luminous “holy child” known by many names across ancient cultures. The magic of rebirth, light borne out of darkness, is common to all people in northern regions. The name of this celebration of the young sun god’s birth has come down to us as “Yule.” The term means “Wheel of the Year” and refers to the endless cycle of changing light, temperature, and foliage manifest in the seasons.

Not surprisingly, the birth of Jesus Christ is hence celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. However, we find no evidence in the canonical Gospels that Jesus commanded anyone to celebrate his birth. Today Christmas has, unfortunately, become an expression of widespread commercialization that focuses primarily on personal gratification, excessive consumption, and gift exchange rather than on profound introspection more attuned to the spirit of Jesus’ message. We need to remember that the essence of the Christmas narrative is incarnation, the very idea that God has come into the world in the form of a human being known to the world as Jesus Christ. And his divine incarnation reminds us that, ultimately, our human nature is inherently divine and that we too have the potential of experiencing the mystery, the wonder, and the love of God in our own human bodies.

Isabella Price, MA, is an international speaker, educator, and the author of Jesus Christ: The Love and Wisdom of a 1st Century Mystic, part of the leading-edge book series “One Truth, Many Paths” on unitive spirituality.

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