I run in to get my hoodie. The kids are in bed. A fire is burning in the firepit, crackling softly as it consumes the dry pine from a late tree that once stood in our backyard. The fire warms the parts of our bodies that face it, but the rest of our bodies feel the crisp autumn air. The hoodie is a sign that I am finally, though reluctantly, accepting the passing of the summer. However, I’m not ready to go inside, so I sit by the fire with a drink in hand as I stare, sometimes at the fire itself, marveling at the flames rolling over the logs, and sometimes at the clear sky with its dark tapestry. The sun sets too soon now, yet its early slumber brings with it new gifts. One of these gifts has just dawned on me after reading a First Nations children’s story to my youngest child: the coming winter is a gift of rest from the Creator.
Upon reading the words, I remember some facts that I already knew: the animals are busy gathering and consuming food to store for the winter ahead. Some of these animals will sleep through the winter while others will search for food throughout the cold season, albeit with far less vigor than they do now, provided that their autumn foraging is successful. Similarly, the deciduous trees and perennial plants are shedding their leaves and recalling their energy reserves into their roots, where the soil and fallen leaves will provide insulation from the cold. The conifers keep their foliage but seal their pores so that their needles may join the rest of the tree in sleep. All of these bits of information are old news for me, but what’s new—or maybe reawakened—is the thought of rest. Mere information gives way to meaning. The animals and plants alike are preparing to rest. They need it. God has woven this pattern of rest and work into God’s creation in order that it may thrive over time.
What’s especially new to me is that the children’s story describes the winter as a time of rest for people, too. Of course, we know that the Southern Hemisphere experiences its summer while the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter—and vice versa—but phenomenologically, we could speak of the divine gift of appearance: the sun appears to be gearing for rest as well. While not technically true, a poetic reading of the lessening sunlight in the autumn and winter remains meaningful in its own way, especially when poetically theological. God works in our places to gift us experiential markers that can draw our bodies into the chorus of the rest of creation. Yet even as God brings the sun into a season of rest to mark our own rest from planting, watering, gathering, and hunting (a created rhythm obscured in our imaginations by the global market), God does not leave us blind. Herein lies a second gift. As I look up from the fire, a bright “star” shines high in the sky toward the east. I say “star,” because I’m not actually looking at a star. While there are many beautiful and wondrous stars illuminating the clear night sky, many joining together in awe-inspiring displays of constellations, the brightest object in the sky tonight is actually the planet Jupiter. The waning crescent moon will not rise for a few hours yet, so the view of Jupiter and the stars is brilliant. Even in the dark—the restful, extended season of dark—light shines in the darkness.
I have written before about my two-culture life. The seasons that provide the cadence for my daily life belong to the Great Lakes region of Turtle Island (the name of North America according to its First Inhabitants). My dress and speech tell the story of twenty-first century global markets enclosed around Western economic dominance. Yet my heart is also shaped in other ways, by the foods (spices!), music, language, and stories of India, half-a-world away. I have come to learn that in the toughest of mental moments, the language of my heart is most sustaining. I remember simpler times as a child engrossed in the Mahabharat. I light sticks of sandalwood (chandan ki agarabatti) and play sitar and tabla music to calm down. I sip the chai that my wife has lovingly made for me. Yet in my backyard, by the fire and under the stars, I’m in a place decidedly foreign to the place that gave me these objects of affection. The two places join together, resisting the urge dishonestly to create purities. And one significant commonality joins both: light made vivid in the darkness. The fire is less impressive during the day and Jupiter vanishes altogether before the overwhelming glory of the sun, whether in India or by the Great Lakes. But in the dark, especially in this season of rest more fully associated with the dark, the shining lights are brilliant.
In reflecting upon light in the dark, my mind goes to a newer story. In season one of True Detective, Rust Cohle leaves a hospital battered and broken. His partner Marty Hart, broken in his own ways, peers into the dark tapestry above and recalls the way a younger Rust would often stare at the stars in wonder. Rust finds solace as he joins simplicity and profundity in a single observation: “It’s [all] just one story. The Oldest. Light vs. dark.”
Marty despairs at how much more space the darkness covers, indicating hopelessness. Darkness will always win, he seems to be saying. The two then seem to move on to more immediate concerns. A minute later, though, Rust returns to Hart’s observation: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing. Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” Where Marty despairs, Rust finds hope. The darkness is an opportunity to see the light, and the darker it appears, the more vibrantly the light appears.
What Rust indicates poetically, biblical scholar Musa Dube says more directly. As we gaze into the dark tapestry of the night sky, we need not fear precisely because of the millions of lights shining, lights that we would not see but for the darkness. As she observes, these millions of lights “decolonize” the darkness. Some of these lights are brighter, such as Jupiter, but all of them point together to the Light that shone into darkness (Jn. 1:4–5, 9). That light, Jesus of Nazareth, shone like no other light. Whereas Jupiter and the rest of the heavenly hosts thrive when the sun rests, that light tucked-in the sun for an afternoon nap.
In each of the Gospels’ accounts of the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13; Mk. 9:2–13; Lk. 9:28–36), it is apparently daytime when Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. After they arrive at the peak, in a rare demonstration of his divine depths, Jesus’s face begins to shine like the sun (Mt. 17:2) and “his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Lk. 9:29). That is, Jesus replaced the sun! He truly was (and is) the light shining amid a tapestry of darkness, and in so doing, Jesus aligned the sun alongside the rest of the heavenly bodies, diminishing it in his presence just as the sun diminishes the planets and stars in its presence. The light of Jesus overcomes the greatest light that shines in India and by the Great Lakes.
Indian people all over the world excitedly welcome Diwali with each other, the Festival of Lights. Its origin stories are plentiful, varying from region to region of India, but it remains a festival distinctly tied to the land and culture of India. As a member of the “American Desi” community, I am an Indian in diaspora who has spent his entire life celebrating Diwali. As a father, my excitement has grown because I get to share the beautiful heritage of Diwali with my kids. In Diwali, divine light overcomes darkness, good overcomes evil, and as a follower of Jesus, I may joyfully say Amen. While Diwali historically belongs to Indians, though, by grace, light belongs to all. In the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth, Diwali—light over darkness—becomes a promise to all. And in Jesus, the darkness can be restful for all even as the simple fact of Jupiter shining in the night sky becomes meaningful for all as a sign of hope.
Happy Diwali 2023!