When I took this shot, I thought about the pathos of the scene, but as I worked in Photoshop to clean up the foreground, my reaction to it changed. Slowly the grave lost its melancholy; I began to think of this as a contemplation on the idea that birth and death might be more in balance and harmony than we normally appreciate. Perhaps, I thought, they are just two expressions of the one, much greater, reality, a reality that transcends the parameters of mere birth and death. And then I thought, “Without death, the birth of Christ would have very little meaning. After all, it is his resurrection after death that is all important.” So, for Christian, having death in the picture above might not be such a sad thing after all. Not being a person of faith, I next thought, “Throughout history, the celebration of the Solstice was always linked to the preceding darkness. It was only the loss of light, the darkness during the preceding months, that motivated the celebration.” Even I could see the symbolic connection between light and dark and birth and death. This made me think that perhaps the Christmas Season’s message is that life has very little significance without death? That, in turn, led me to think that perhaps death might somehow be somehow like a Christmas gift we all receive at birth, a gift that constantly reminds us of our fleetingly temporal existence, a gift that constantly forces us to seek meaning in life. It is this search that leads us to art, another gift, one which truly enriches our life. Isn’t art how we humans attempt to transcend the grave? OK, so it’s not heaven with 70 virgins or anything like that, but that always seemed like it might work out to be more trouble than it was worth anyway. As an atheist with very little need for what I see as the myth of an afterlife, this connection between mortality and art made sense to me. It seems to me that through art, we enter into the middle of an ancient and seemingly endless conversation about the human condition. This conversation has its roots in antiquity, probably before those early cave paintings we associate with the earliest man. We jump in with our own two cents along with our contemporaries, only to have our contributions, incorporated or not, into the next generation’s expression of their own search. This line of thinking then made me reflect on how intricately art of every sort has been tied to religion through the ages. The fabulous architecture, music, literature, and even dance of various religious sects form the emotional connective tissue of the body of all religious denominations. Even the rejection of certain art forms by some religions proves the power art has over the human psyche and how it shapes our perception of the greatest of all questions, “What am I doing here?
All this pondering eventually led me to ask, is it possible that the overarching message of Christmas is that there is a spirit, not necessarily a Holy Ghost, so much as just a driving force inside us all that can and sometimes does transcend the grave. If so, we should not live in fear of the grave but celebrate this very short gift of life and the perspective we have been given by death on the value of that gift. We should see the inevitability of death as a daily reminder to cherish how lucky we are to be able to experience the amazing and special gift of life.
As photographers in the internet era, we can use our art not just to give meaning to our own lives but to share that meaning, insight, and connectedness with people everywhere. Regardless of whether or not you are seeking some religious heaven or some other transcendent state, this cusp in the progression of the sun through a more observable heaven seems a perfect time to recognize how much we have in common and how so much of what gives meaning to our life has its roots in our inevitable mortality. Somehow, all this pondering and convoluted logic led me to believe that all this was sufficient reason to appropriate a wish from my neighbors and friends. So I wish everyone, regardless of your particular faith or lack thereof, a Merry Christmas.