These remarks were shared at the Menorah and Christmas Tree Lighting in Woodcliff Lake, NJ on December 7, 2023.
So my flavor of Christianity, known as Lutheranism, began a little more than 500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany. Its founder was a man named Martin Luther who was a monk, a priest, and a professor at the local university. And there’s a legend among my people that he was the first person to purposefully put lights on a tree to celebrate Christmas. It’s said that one day, after a snowfall, Martin was walking home in the middle of the night. The air was cold and clear and the snow crunched under his feet. Since he was walking before the invention of electricity, street lights, and the flashlight mode on the iPhone – the only light that could guide his way was the moon and stars. The snow covered the ground, trees, and even houses like icing on a cake. As he walked, he noticed how the starlight, reflecting off the snow stuck on the evergreen trees, made them shiny and bright. Those trees sparkled while everything else around him felt dry, drab, and lifeless. He eventually decided to cut one of those trees down and bring it into his home. He wasn’t the first to decorate the home with an evergreen tree but he wanted to try and copy what he saw during a snowy, starlit night. He, disregarding every first safety tip that we now – rightly – teach our children – placed lit candles on the tree’s branches. It was his way of celebrating the Christmas season by reminding his family and especially his children – that even when the world was at its bleakest, hope and love is never gone.
Now as a person of faith, I often feel like a tree in winter and I’m not always sure if my hope is always evergreen. It’s a struggle to keep faith fresh and alive when we’re surrounded by so much sorrow, trouble, and despair. In a moment when so much hate, pain, fear, and terror, along with a rise in antisemitism, islamophobia and all those other things that try to keep love in the dark – I’m not sure if it’s always possible or even faithful to just act as if these holidays seasons can only be merry and bright. What I seek and want is a more fuller story that does not hide from the truth of this moment but also imagines of what tomorrow might be. I was recently re-reading a children’s book called “God’s Holy Darkness” which encourage us to think deeper about what the dark and light might mean. Throughout its page, it points to the stories within the Jewish and Christian scriptures where God was stirring even in the dark. Rather than saying that dark or black or night is bad while light and white and bright are good, the book invites us to remember how so many of our stories are pregnant with possibilities that are always present even when things feel lifeless, dry, and drab. We’re told that creation itself began in the dark – and it’s in a holy darkness that God poured out love and brought all things into being. When Abraham began to doubt God’s promises, the Lord took him on a walk and pointed to the night sky to count the stars. When Jacob wrestled with God and was changed, it began at night. We’re told that at midnight, the Lord passed over Egypt to see people free. And when Christmas came, angels announced his birth not to kings and queens and those who we consider important. It was first by angels to shepherds who were watching their flock in the dark.
So I wonder if, on this holy night, we might admit the fullness of who we are while recognizing how this won’t be the limit of who we might become. We have already lit the Menorah and we will light this tree – to show how we can choose to be for each other and proclaim that Woodcliff Lake cannot be what it’s supposed to be without each one of us. As I look out into the darkness, I see in you an evergreen hope that more is always possible. You are the starlight that illuminates all the possibilities dwelling in the dark which we, together, can reveal. My prayer is that in the days that follow, we will do more than admire the lights that shine. We will remember that they, and we, are meant to be a manifestation of a hope, peace, and joy that never ends.
And so let’s share a few more prayers as we bless the tree and its lights.