The longest night of the year fast approaches: the winter solstice. It comes quickly, and to the ancients, this was always a source of anxiety. Will the longest night move so fast that, like a bird of prey, it’ll sweep in, snatch up the light, swallow it, and overtake all? Or will the light ultimately triumph? Will the sun return?

It was a moral cosmology, forces of good and evil infusing the physics of our universe. We know it is not literally true, yet there remains the poetry of it, the logic of it, which we can still take seriously, and we do. Light triumphing over an encroaching, threatening darkness. Many faces to this, many ways. The Hindu celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights, occurring between mid-October and mid-November. Advent candles of hope, peace, joy, love, on the way to Christmas. Moravian star, greening lights. Hanukkah candles symbolizing the miracle light of freedom.

Ancients, walking with us still, no matter what our religion happens to be. The old. old logic of sun-return still moving within our celebrations, within our Unitarian Universalist chalice flame as well, which is nothing if not a memory of all the flames that didn’t die, despite everything. Light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Just listen to one of the oldest recorded prayers in human history:

From unreality lead us to reality.
From bondage lead us to freedom.
From darkness lead us to light.

This comes from Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, and it is of a piece with this holiday season, another way of saying the same thing, another way of affirming the eternal hope of the human heart. Hindus believe that there are times when ignorance and suffering are so great that nothing less than God becoming human to lead the people out of the shadows will suffice. Vishnu enters human history, for Vishnu is that aspect of the divine which preserves, and strengthens, and unifies; and when Vishnu takes on a human form, that form is called an “avatar,” which simply means “an incarnation of God.” Love takes human form, whenever the need is greatest, and some Hindus say that there have been thousands of avatars over the course of history.

Several are traditionally singled out for special recognition, including Krishna and the Buddha, and many Hindus would like to include Jesus as well, as the avatar through whom most Western people have learned the truth about the power of love at the center of the universe. Love taking human form whenever the need is greatest. Baby Jesus, born in the middle of nowhere, in a backwater town in Judea, in a time of devastating brutality.

And it’s our calling too, wherever we happen to be. The avatar impulse surging up in us as well, as an unconquerable inner light of love. Not the kind of love that is fundamentally a tingly feeling. But love that is active, effective, a choice; as theologian Carter Heyward puts it: “a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.” This, says another theologian, is how we are in fact saved. If salvation has any meaning at all, this is it. Who is this theologian? Faustus Socinus—one of our Unitarian forebearers from more than 400 years ago. Jesus saves, he said, by virtue of the example of his life. If we follow his example and are converted to humanity—if we make the active, effective choice to participate with others in the healing of brokenness—then salvation can have meaning for us. Only then.

Love taking human form, in us—our way of being saved this winter season and all year round. There is a marvelous story about a woman who once stood before God and she was angry about all the suffering and hurt in the world and she cried out, ”Dear God, look at all the anguish and injustice, all the distress and unfairness in your world. What kind of God are you? Why don’t you send help?” And God said, “I did send help. I sent you.”

From unreality lead us to reality.
From bondage lead us to freedom.
From darkness lead us to light.

The avatar impulse surges up, surges up, and there are times when we see it surging up in the events of human history, as in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Love taking human form in this way too.

It’s a remarkable story. A little more than 90 years ago, millions of people from all over Europe rushed enthusiastically to the call of war, embracing the old Roman saying, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “how sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” The mood was jovial. The war would last only weeks. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen off the trees,” said the German Kaiser, in early August 1914, to his troops.

But he was wrong. Leaves would fall off the trees four times before it was over. Grinding, catastrophic years. The jovial mood torn away, the mask of sweetness torn away, once the battles actually began. One reason was this: military tactics had failed to keep pace with advances in technology, like repeating rifles, machine guns, and barbed wire, and out-of-date strategies meant excruciating vulnerability. Armies tore chunks out of each other, were deadlocked. Thousands upon thousands of men slaughtered. Just like the leaves, men falling.

So into the trenches they went. This was how the soldiers on either side would protect themselves in the autumn and winter of 1914 (and beyond). Dig in and prepare for future offenses which would hopefully break through the deadlock and deliver victory. Keep your head down. The enemy sometimes no more than 70 yards away, 50 yards away, 30 yards away. Crack of rifles, dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground, but you could also hear the enemy talking, laughing, hurling insults. At times see shadowy shapes in the distance.

So there they are, the soldiers, in the cold, in the muck, mud sucking at their boots, miserable in trenches. It’s Christmas Eve, and they feel the darkness of a world at war surrounding them, threatening to snatch up the light and swallow it for good. And then suddenly, along various areas of the Western front, it happens: love takes human form. Salvation. The shooting stops. First silence for months. Christmas trees go up, and then there is singing, back and forth: “Silent Night.” ”Oh Christmas Tree.” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Each side applauds the other, and then a thought begins to stir: was the enemy really as bad as the politicians and papers were saying? Across No Man’s Land: something other than cruelty and death and madness happening.

Happening spontaneously at different points along the British-German front, each instance independent of the others. Almost two-thirds of the front transformed: soldiers singing, each side singing to the other instead of shooting. Then up and out of their trenches, meeting each other in their common humanity. Playing soccer together. Exchanging gifts, exchanging stories, mourning each others’ dead, burying each other’s dead.

It’s the ancient prayer again:

From unreality lead us to reality.
From bondage lead us to freedom.
From darkness lead us to light.

It’s what keeps me going, as I reflect on the different kinds of trenches we find ourselves in, fighting away, personally, nationally, and internationally. With all this talk about World War I, I can’t help but think about our years of war in Iraq, and now an intensified war in Afghanistan. At least in Iraq, what had been planned as a short and decisive intervention became in reality a grueling counterinsurgency that put our women and men into sustained close-quarters combat on a scale not seen since Vietnam. Too many times, the leaves will have fallen off the trees, before they all come home. Too many times.

And I say all this acknowledging the severe truth in President Obama’s recent Nobel Peace Prize speech, where he says, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” “I face the world as it is,” he says; “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s army. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” This is what President Obama says. Severe truth.

Yet this truth must coexist somehow with another truth: that “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Never say those old Roman words: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “how sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” Never say them. Never imagine oneself to be a pure agent of the Light, and one’s mission a holy mission. “For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will,” says President Obama, “then there is no need for restraint—no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the even a person of one’s own faith.” The battle of pure good versus pure evil could only ever be for gods of myth, and never for mere mortals like ourselves.

The two truths must somehow live together, in tension. Wars are sometimes just, and no matter how just, wars are a tragedy, and a folly. Severe, severe wisdom that can bury a person in despair. Bury you and bury me. The longest night of the year, flying like a bird of prey, threatening to snatch up the light, swallow it up forever and forever.

That’s why, in this holiday season especially, I cherish the brave light of our Unitarian Universalist chalice, that memory of all the flames that didn’t die, despite everything. I cherish our advent candles and menorah candles, I cherish our Moravian star and greening lights. They bring hopefulness and healing, and I accept them into my fear for the world. I breathe them in . I am reminded of the avatar impulse in us, the same impulse that led those soldiers so many years ago to place Christmas trees in front of trenches, to sing Christmas carols, to transform No Man’s Land into a soccer playground. Love taking human form, in them, in us. Salvation. And though it did not end the war—sometimes we cannot avoid the fight—still, the miracle made them more human in a dehumanizing situation, freed them from self-righteousness and false pride, freed them to treat the opponent honorably as fellow humans with hopes and fears.

And above all, they told the story far and wide. The Christmas Truce of 1914. They kept the story alive, a story that reaffirms my faith in the world and perhaps yours, a story that is itself one of the many small factors and large factors that one day, one day will combine together and the chemistry will be right and suddenly, impossibly, the unconquerable avatar impulse deep within will realize itself fully and completely, fully and completely, and the human race will finally awaken, it will awaken from its war sickness, and it will learn a different way. It will.

From unreality lead us to reality.
From bondage lead us to freedom.
From darkness lead us to light.

To this ancient prayer I say, AMEN.

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