The winter solstice comes Wednesday, Dec. 21. It’s the shortest day of the year, with the least amount of daylight and the greatest amount of darkness. It can often seem as if our world is embroiled in darkness as well, from which it may never emerge.
In this past year we’ve seen economic woes, continued wars (particularly in Ukraine), violence and crime here at home on our streets and subways and political gridlock as we separate into “blue” and “red” camps, with little attempt at compromise for the common good.
As religious leaders here in New York, we watch with alarm as religion and faith come under increasing attack from forces of intolerance and bigotry. Sadly, we have seen rising hatred in our midst with assaults on Jews wearing religious garb or others who are simply deemed different, as well as acts of vandalism at churches and synagogues that have become all too common.
Certainly the prophet did not envision this concern when he proclaimed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
We also see increasing attempts to tell believers that they can practice their faith inside a house of worship, but not bring that faith into the public square.
Doesn’t it sometimes seem as if the darkness and cold have won, and that long days of light and warmth might never return?
Our religious teaching tells us that bringing light into the world is a most noble deed. In fact, sacred scripture tells us that at the beginning of creation, the first thing God said was “Let there be light . . . and God saw that the light was good.”
Sunday evening, the Jewish community begins its celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, commemorating the reclaiming of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle of one night’s supply of oil for the Temple Menorah lasting eight days.
That day also begins the final week of Advent, the four-week period when Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a manager in Bethlehem. We hear in the Gospel story how on that first Christmas morning the “Glory of the Lord shone” around the shepherds and how a star guided the wise men, all of whom came to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
The juxtaposition of our respective celebrations enables us to fulfill our own sacred missions without diminishing the importance of the other. There is wisdom in the ancient proverb that one candle can kindle many others without diluting its own integrity. We are privileged to live in a city where we of different faiths can stand with one another with respect for our own tradition while recognizing the beauty of the other.
Often when we friends of different faiths gather at meetings of the Commission of Religious Leaders, we begin by praying Psalm 46 “God is in the midst of the City/It shall not be moved/God will help when the morning dawns.” We see that holy presence made manifest through the human participation of so many caring compassionate people of faith, itself a means of bringing light into the world.
Who can forget last month’s heroic efforts of FDNY firefighters rappelling outside a burning building, carrying people to safety? We gratefully honor those doctors, nurses, and caregivers who continue to bring the light of compassionate care to those battling COVID, RSV and the flu during this “tripledemic.” The light is there in the thousands of people working to provide aid and assist refugees of the unjust war in Ukraine.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” These beautiful words from the Jewish prophet Isaiah will be proclaimed at Christmas worship.
What’s common to our differing faith traditions is the deep-rooted trust that — no matter the bad news, the darkness, the fear that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us — spring will defeat winter, light will always overcome the darkness, life will conquer death.
Whether you’re Jewish, Christian, another faith or none at all, everyone agrees we need light today.
A blessed and joyous Hanukkah and Christmas!
Timothy Cardinal Dolan is archbishop of New York; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik is executive VP of the New York Board of Rabbis; Rev. A.R. Bernard is the senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center Megachurch in Brooklyn.