In spite of all this darkness there is light around, Christmas trees and christmas decorations lift my heart and while many Christians abhor the materialism of Christmas I find christmas shopping strangely moving as people search for gifts that they hope will please their loved ones. This is also a season of religious festivals that focus on lights. Hannukah is a Jewish festival of light. It commemorates a miracle when the Maccabees purified the Temple and the oil miraculously lasted for eight days until more could be brought to replenish the empty vessels. Each day of the eight day festival a new candle is lit and these candles put in a public place. If anyone has no means of acquiring candles they are asked to borrow money or candles to display on the candlestick or hannukiah. At the heart of this festival is religious freedom and the candles witness to the importance of and reality of religious freedom, especially in the face of religious oppression. It's a sign of hope that even in the darkest times hope need not be extinguished and that light can triumph.
For Christians Christmas has the same message. One of Jesus' titles is the Light of the World which means that Christians see him as the one who is like a lamp shining in a dark place, who shows a way out of darkness, a way of being and living that is a counter narrative to the prevalent one which seems to be at work in society today. And John's Gospel tells us that the darkness will not overcome the light or, as I recently read, repress it. But the darkness doesn't disappear. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said light and darkness are interrelated; there would be no darkness without light and no light without darkness. Light is only seen in darkness. This offers hope and meaning for all people of good will, whether they be religious or not, who feel helpless and puzzled in the face of atrocities committed in the name of religion and the dark forces that so often seem to be at work in our world. If we could live by our highest ideals, try to put the golden rule that is at the heart of all religions into practice we could perhaps offer light and hope to the world.
Pope Francis has offered light and hope this week. On 8th December he initiated a Holy Year, something that has been happening every 25 years in the Catholic Church. It relates back to the notion of Jubilee in the Jewish scriptures. This occurred every fifty years and proclaimed liberty to the land, debtors, slaves and prisoners. It was a year of mercy. It's no longer celebrated in Judaism but it was adopted by the Catholic Church in the Middle ages. In Judaism it was announced by the blowing of a ram's horn, in Catholicism by the solemn opening of the Holy Door, usually in Rome but this year in a number of Cathedrals throughout the world. The Pope wants to show the Catholic Church as merciful and forgiving rather than judgemental. He suggested that "to enter through the Holy Door means to rediscover the deepness of the mercy of the Father who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally. How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we affirm that sins are punished by his judgment before putting first that they are forgiven by his mercy! We have to put mercy before judgment, and in every case God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."
This year is to offer mercy and forgiveness to believers but it's also about believers showing mercy to others. The mass on Tuesday which began the Holy Year ended with the words, "Be merciful as your Father is merciful." This is the call to all Catholics and indeed all Christians and a benchmark for how faithfully they are living out their faith. Mercy is also central to Islam among other faiths. Each chapter of the Qur'an, apart from one, begins, "In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate" Islam speaks of the 99 beautiful names of God but the Qur'an shows that mercy and compassion are central to the reality of God and that the Qur'an is to be understood through the lens of mercy and compassion. We could say that mercy and compassion are also the benchmark for judging an authentic Islamic faith as it is for judging an authentic Christian faith. Perhaps in this Holy Year we Christians and Muslims could come together to work out how we show a mercy that is just and honest, not just to one another whom we see as our brothers and sisters, but also those who by their action show up our religions by their hatred rather than their mercy - a good agenda for 2016.