(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
On June 5th, 1944, at 9:30 in the evening, at an airbase north of London, 200 paratroopers took off in unarmed C-47 planes. The paratroopers had been told their mission only hours before.
The planes, with no navigation lights, headed east across the English Channel. They flew at an altitude of 300 feet. Soon, the planes came across a vast armada of thousands of ships – none of them with navigation lights either.
The paratrooper planes later encountered small civilian boats that flashed green lights – letting the planes know they were on course. Soon, the pilots saw below them the waves and beaches of Normandy, France. They also began to run into heavy clouds which obscured their view of the ground. And, enemy anti-aircraft fire soon erupted
Within minutes, red lights flashed in the cargo holds of the planes alerting the 200 paratroopers it was time to jump. One by one they stepped out into the propeller blast and pitch black sky. They were quickly jolted upward as their parachutes engaged. The paratroopers drifted 600 feet to the totally dark ground. They were the first Allied troops in France in over four years and the very first combat soldiers of D-Day – one of the most important events of the Twentieth Century.
Once on the ground, they carried out their mission to set up small beacon lights that pinpointed landing zones for the thousands of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division who would soon follow. These first 200 paratroopers were called “Pathfinders” – soldiers who brought light into darkness to guide the way for good things to happen.
My plan this December is to highlight seasonal holidays from around the world – from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, China, Israel and the United States. I hope to learn more about the various cultures and also glean from the holidays inspiration for my life and perhaps for yours as well.
Today, I’ll consider Saint Lucia Day that’s celebrated in Sweden, Norway and parts of Denmark. The holiday falls on December 13th which was the winter Solstice on the old Roman calendar. St. Lucia day, this year, is this coming Friday.
Lucia is said to have lived in Rome during the late third century CE. During her life, Lucia practiced her Christian faith by helping the poor and oppressed. Like all young women of the time, she’d been given a dowry of money which would go to the man who agreed to marry her. Lucia, however, had figuratively married herself to Christ – and so she asked her mother if she could give away her dowry to the poor – which she then did.
Lucia became especially well known for bringing food, water, blankets, and comfort to thousands of Christians who hid from religious persecution in the catacomb caves beneath Rome. In order to use both her arms and hands to carry as much food as possible, she wore candles affixed to her head to light the way through dark passageways. After helping and feeding oppressed people for many years, she was captured and then burned alive – becoming one of the earliest Christian martyrs. She was later made a Saint by the Catholic Church.
While the story of Lucia has likely been embellished for religious purposes, word of her actions and her martyrdom eventually reached far from Italy and into Sweden and Norway. It’s theorized the Vikings, who traveled extensively by ship, heard of her story and brought it home with them.
For people who lived in the northern latitudes and who annually face a long winter of near total darkness, Lucia’s story struck a chord. On the shortest day of the year, when darkness seems to overwhelm everything, Scandinavian people nevertheless celebrate the expectation that the sun will shine again. Saint Lucia is thus a symbolic harbinger of hope and light.
Even today, when the true winter solstice takes place on December 21st, Scandinavians still celebrate St. Lucia day on December 13th – the old winter solstice date. The holiday is marked by festive meals with food and wine. The highlight of each meal is when women and girls dressed all in white, to symbolize St. Lucia’s purity, enter a darkened room wearing wreaths with candles affixed to them. In today’s times, women wearing white also symbolize female empowerment and the true goodness women have in a world with too much male generated darkness.
The St. Lucia’s also distribute trays of sweets – intended to symbolize the good that will come. They are the first in all of Scandinavia to usher in the December Holiday season. They are pathfinders bringing light into a dark world.
I earlier said that June 6, 1944, D-Day, was one of the most important events – if not THE most important event – of the 20th century. That is not an overstatement. It’s easy to understand the importance of what the pathfinder paratroopers and hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers did that day. Had their mission failed, had the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe failed, human history and our own lives would be very different.
Even more, it’s easy to understand the proverbial darkness people living at the time must have felt. Millions were being slaughtered in the name of Nazi racism. The entire world was in the grip of a psychopathic demagogue bent on universal domination. We see echoes of the same today and yet the situation was much, much worse in 1944. Those who believed in decency and democracy could well have given up hope. And yet they did not.
Such resilience and hope is a message for me and perhaps all of us. But more than just being a good message, it is also historical fact that darkness and evil has always existed in the world. Humanity has always faced difficult times – many of which were far more terrible than what people face today. Think of the Bubonic plague that killed 50 million people in the 14th century – with no treatment available and thus no knowledge of what caused it. Think of what former slaves endured in their cruel existence on slave ships, or laboring in sweltering cotton fields. Think of the hundred years war in Europe when that continent was continually riven by conflict, chaos and death. In this nation, think of the Civil War when 750,000 soldiers were killed and half a million wounded or, think of the great depression when our parents or grandparents – and indeed the entire nation – faced complete ruin. In each and every case, forces of light and courage did not give into to the dark. Light, love and good have always eventually won. And they will again.
Most of the December holidays around the world are known by their celebration of light. Indeed, that’s a hallmark of the winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa holidays. They each celebrate light as symbolic of love, generosity, justice, and peace illuminating a dysfunctional world. And St. Lucia day is no different except that it implicitly calls those who celebrate the holiday – and all of us who now learn about it – to be Saint Lucia’s ourselves. We are to be pathfinders of hope and goodness in a world filled with hurt, oppression and looming threats.
The reminder for me, therefore, is that darkness and evil are ever present. They existed two-thousand years ago and still do today. Far more humbling for me, however, is the awareness that darkness is within me too. The imperfections, pain and hurt in the world are a reality precisely because they usually come from humanity. People are too often indifferent, angry, hateful, and cruel. They can also be judgmental, hypocritical, and unjust. How is it possible humans can celebrate holidays of goodness and light when there is so much darkness lurking in human hearts – including our own? Indeed, I can easily point out concerns I have about darkness in the world, but I too easily overlook the darkness in myself.
After learning about St. Lucia, my question is this: how can I be a pathfinder, a modern St. Lucia, in how I live? How can I bring joy, peace, kindness and hope to everyone I encounter? How can I be calm, courageous and filled with joy – all so that whatever dim l light I do project will offer warmth and comfort?
For me, being a pathfinder – someone who brings light into darkness – means I must first face my own darkness – areas in me where I hold grudges, nurse lingering anger, or form judgmental attitudes. Such parts of me go against my desire to be more empathetic and kind. The battle between light and dark is one fought in me – just as it is in the larger world. And so I must daily resolve to be a light – to be a person of understanding and love despite my baser impulses. I need to purposefully remember the small flicker of a pilot light deep in me – so that I may use it to summon my better angels.
Second, I believe the December holidays are annual reminders to step into the light. And for me, that means not falling prey to the false December lights of indulgence, selfishness, and cynicism. Evil seems to have a sinister way of making itself appear as light, when it is not. Commercialization, greed, and over-emphasis on lavish parties and gifts during this season can too often become versions of false light. They seduce us into thinking they are the reason for the season when the true lights of December holidays are far more eternal and beneficial.
The winter solstice holiday is about the persistence of hope. Hanukkah is about courage and optimism. Christmas is about gentleness, forgiveness and humility – the seemingly weak things of this world being ironically very strong. Kwanzaa is about justice, unity and equality. All of these holidays are not celebrated for the sake of profit and overindulgence. They instead emphatically tell us to literally become lights, to be pathfinders, to be Saint Lucias. If there is to be light in this world, let it begin in me – with words and actions of empathy, forgiveness, love, and peace.
And if I am to be those things, then I must third, summon both the courage and the will to bring light into dark places. I must learn to love those who hate, forgive those who attack, empathize with those who are angry, comfort those who are unwashed, and make peace with those whom I disagree. It’s always good to be kind to family and friends. It is far more challenging to venture into the figurative catacombs of today – prisons, homeless shelters, or the places where people I disagree with are. I so often lament the lack of civility and kindness in our culture and yet I often don’t go out of my way to spread them or practice them in symbolically dark places.
And darkness does indeed close around us. Everywhere we look we perceive it. And yet Saint Lucia Day and other December holidays tell us that it need not be so. I believe the single greatest thing we can each do, the single most influential task we can accomplish this holiday season and in the new year beyond, is to illuminate our own small areas of influence. To all whom we encounter, let us be a hope filled Saint Lucia. Let us be courageous Hanukkah candle lighters. Let us be forgiving and kind Christmas babes in a manger. Let us be Kwanzaa lovers of justice and unity. Let us, in all the ways we speak, act and think, be St. Lucia pathfinders of light and hope and love.
I wish you all much peace, joy, hope and light…
Michael begins piano background music.
St Lucias enter.
In the darkness of this room, in a world filled with so much hate, violence, and heartache, now comes light. Brought by young women dressed in white, the light comes in peace. These young women come with hope for their lives, for us, and for the world. May we take a moment now to give thanks for forces of light in our midst and in our world. And may we ponder how to symbolically take the light here now and make it our own. Let us reflect, ponder or pray for universal light, hope and love. (Pause)
And now, with real and figurative light in the room, let’s celebrate! The St Lucias will now put down their candles and bring you treats that represent the good in each of you and in our world. To celebrate this Swedish holiday, let’s turn to music from the Swedish band Abba – let’s celebrate to the tune of Dancing Queen!