Putting mystery back in the holidays of miracles and light


December’s mainstay holidays are cloaked in mystery and miracles. Darkness to light summarizes the current holiday season theme regardless of which ones you observe.

Hanukkah, Christmas, and even the winter solstice share those common qualities. They each come with their own history, a bit of mystery, and a requisite for reverence. The three even overlap in time, traditions, and symbols.

Hanukkah and Christmas each have deep, overlapping religious roots, while the winter solstice has pagan origins. All three, however, connect winter’s darkness with some concept of light. In fact, the triumvirate celebrates light in authentic, yet distinctive practices.

Besides illuminating light in the year’s darkest time, this triune of holidays has another commonality. The celebration of all three can last for days in keeping their specific purposes.

The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its farthest southward point for the year. That is precisely 9:19 p.m. EST on December 21. In Universal Time, the winter solstice is December 22 at 4:49 a.m.

The winter solstice marks the latest dawn and the earliest sunset. It is the longest night and shortest day for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it’s just the opposite for those south of the equator.

History and archeology show us that earth’s early peoples recognized this critical point in whatever way they marked time. They understood that the sun’s path could be predicted on a regular route across the sky.

Archeological wonders like England’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu stand as evidence of this. Indigenous peoples in America’s southwest also marked the end of darkness in similar light-filled ceremonies.

Historians are still unraveling the mysteries of these cultural rituals. Fire and light were essential symbols in most of these ancient celebrations. I marvel at how those two entities connect to Hanukkah and Christmas.

This year Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish faith from December 22 to 30. Hanukkah is the commemoration of a historic miracle involving light.

The Jewish holiday arose after the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from cruel ruler Antiochus. Wanting to rededicate the holy temple, the Judah victors found only enough olive oil to burn sacred candles for one night. Mysteriously, the menorah candle burned for eight consecutive nights, establishing the miracle of Hanukkah.

Christmas, of course, is December 25, most likely assigned that date to coincide with the winter solstice and Hanukkah celebrations, according to some historians. They reasoned that if the shepherds were guarding the grazing sheep, the season would have been one other than winter.

Regardless, Christmastime is a celebration of another kind of light. It, too, is rooted in a miracle, that of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, meaning, “God with us.”

Christians begin the Yuletide season with the Advent preparation four weeks ahead of Christmas Day. Some sects of Christianity then extend the celebration to January 6 or Epiphany or Old Christmas, which the Amish humbly celebrate.

For me, in this blend of holidays, the light brings anticipation of better things to come: lighter, longer days, a hope for a better, sunnier new year, the joy of personal peace by walking with the light, and the love of all Creation.

The vibrant spirits of the season, miracle and mystery, gently weave the interconnected holiday celebrations together with the threads of hope, joy, peace, and love. Will we allow ourselves to be wrapped lovingly in this warm garment more radiant than the brightest star?

I pray that the mystery of miracle envelops you and yours in joy and light this holiday season.

Winter solstice sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Portland Head Lighthouse and Ascension Day


Today is Ascension Day. It is the day marked by Christians that Jesus ascended into Heaven 40 days after His resurrection, which is celebrated annually as Easter. For 40 days thereafter, Jesus walked and talked with his disciples until he was taken into the clouds.

There are plenty of clouds in this iconic setting, the Portland Head Lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth near Portland, Maine. It’s hard not to take a beautiful shot at this historic site, a scene often portrayed on many calendars over the years.

Ships at sea in part depend on lighthouses to keep their bearings. I envisioned the lighthouse’s beacon flashing in the overcast evening as a symbol to all of this sacred event.

“Portland Head Lighthouse and Ascension Day” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

A different approach to Easter

Maybe after all of these years, I’m finally getting the point of Easter.

The holiest of holy days in the Christian tradition, Easter’s resurrection coincides with spring’s rejuvenating renewal. That I always understood, even as a child.

Of course, as a youngster, that spiritual message became overshadowed by other Easter traditions. Hunting for our Easter baskets loaded with chocolaty treats and boiled eggs we had previously colored was a priority.

After all the baskets and colored eggs were found, we enjoyed a breakfast with hot crossed buns. That, too, was always an Easter treat obtained from the neighborhood bakery where our grandmother worked.

Buying an Easter lily for our loving mother was also deemed a must. Of course, we all gussied up in our Sunday best and headed off to church with scores of other baby boomer families.

My wife and I continued some of those traditions as we, too, had children of our own. Helen, our children’s adopted Killbuck, Ohio grandmother, often hosted us after church. I would hide the eggs outside while Helen and Neva prepared their typical delicious meal.

We have continued that tradition with our grandchildren, although that varies according to their busy schedules. We’ll hold our own egg and Easter basket hunt, all the while recording the unfolding events with my camera. Nana usually fixes a scrumptious dinner to complete the secular celebrating.

Church, of course, is still a central element in our Easter celebration. It has to be. Without Easter, there would be no church, as we now know it. Perhaps therein lies my senior moment with this holiday.

As much as I enjoy the candy and the children’s excitement, I can’t shake loose the days that led up to this most consecrated day. In retrospect, they occur in logical succession that actually creates Easter’s real significance.

Triumphant Palm Sunday followed by the solemnity of Maundy Thursday, and the stark realization of Good Friday mirror my own ambivalence of the season. I am too much aware of personal grieving, death of loved ones and friends, injuries and unexpected illnesses of innocent little ones, the bigoted injustices of society toward the least, the last, and the lost.

Altogether, it seems too much to tolerate, too much to absorb, too much to accept amid the social and global daily inequities by those in power who twist the truth to their advantage. Bullies become victims and victims made the bullies, no matter the facts.

I struggle to reconcile a glorious day like Easter with the reality of the daily dynamics of a troubled world, of people in pain and mourning.

It is then that I remember that is the way of the world and the very reason for Easter itself. Christians are to model that self-sacrifice in their daily lives, not take advantage of those who have less or nothing at all.

Easter isn’t only a holiday. For those who believe, renewal is to be a daily way of life. That is a tall measure to live up to, but it is the only measure that matters.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the greatest commandment to follow, and the hardest.

That precept, that lifestyle can only be achieved if we acknowledge our own imperfections, our Creator, and our responsibility to help others moment by moment, breath by breath.

That Easter hunt doesn’t come in colored eggs or decorated baskets. It must be resurrected daily, individually, unselfishly, and unconditionally. If not, there is no Easter morning.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Maunday Thursday Sunset


Maunday Thursday is a solumn, sacred holy day in the Christian tradition. It is the Thursday before Easter, believed to be the day Christ shared His last Passover meal with the disciples.

The blood-orange tint of these clouds coupled with the dark, foreboding color of the foreground seemed an appropriate scene to set the stage for the historical trauma of Good Friday.

“Maunday Thursday Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Changing diets to live

Walking by Bruce Stambaugh
Bruce Stambaugh

Nearly five years ago, I was forced to change diets. That’s right. Forced.

During my annual physical exam at the doctor’s office, I happened to mention that I had recently had a couple of dizzy spells. With a family history of strokes and heart issues, the doctor ordered some tests, including a MRI.

On the return visit, I was told that I had cerebral arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries of the brain. If I continued my regular lifestyle, including my normal, unrestricted diet, I would run a high risk of a stroke.

The doctor of course prescribed medication, encouraged me to increase my exercise routine, and to drastically change my diet. The “don’ts” of the new diet far out numbered the “dos.”

Fresh veggies by Bruce StambaughThe orders were no beef or pork, no processed food, no fried food, and only no-fat dairy products. Instead, my choices were grilled, roasted, baked or broiled fish, chicken or turkey. In addition, I needed to eat at least five to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Basically, I could eat anything with two legs or no legs.

My head was spinning. The doctor must have sensed my tension because he did something rather unusual. He pulled up his own medical chart on his laptop and showed me his blood work scores. He, too, had the same disease, and had been on the same diet for more than a year.

“You can do it,” he said.

My doctor was right. I could do it because I did. I have been eating that way every since and enjoying it greatly. In fact within a month of going meatless and eating lots of fruits and veggies, I felt much better.

Of course I had increased my exercise, walking for 30 minutes at least three times per week. I rode the exercise bicycle if the weather was bad.

My wife, the chief cook in our empty nest home, was diligent about preparing food that I could eat. Together we followed the same diet.

Heirloom tomatoes by Bruce Stambaugh

My change in diet came right when our heirloom tomatoes came ripe. That was both good and bad. The tomatoes were great to eat fresh off the vine or in a salad or salsa or soup, but I missed one of my favorite foods, bacon, tomato and lettuce sandwiches. Having the latter two without the bacon hardly qualified as a sandwich.

At my three-month checkup, I told the doctor about my BLT cravings. He said that it was all right to eat some meat once a month or so. I looked forward to my BLTs the next year, but kept to my no meat diet as best I could.

Fried tilapia by Bruce Stambaugh
Fried tilapia and rice served to me in a home in Honduras.
If I was served meat as a guest in someone’s home, I politely ate it, but only a small portion. While working in Honduras on a mission project with a group from our church, we were sometimes served beef or fried fish. Not wanting to be insulting, I ate what was prepared for me or furtively shared with another person.

A year after first going on my new diet I received the best news possible. My homocysteine levels, the important blood work scores, were below the danger threshold. The diet, exercise and medication were working.

My doctor was as pleased as I was. I told him that to celebrate I was going out to eat and have a steak. I didn’t of course. By then, the desire for meat had long faded. In fact, the greasy smell exhausted by restaurants makes me nauseous.

Even though the dizziness about which I had originally complained was unrelated to my disease, I was ever thankful that I had mentioned it. I feel better, less lethargic, and more vibrant. I have lost a few pounds, and enjoy my regular walks, which have the added bonus of communing with God and nature as I stroll along our rural roads.

Best of all, I am able to maintain my regular routines and enjoy not only the food I eat, but the life that God has given me one day at a time.

Country view by Bruce Stambaugh

This article appeared in the July 2012 edition of Purpose, Stories of Faith and Promise.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012