The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. ~ Isaiah 9:2 (King James version)
What's with all the candles this time of year?
Of course humans (at least those of us in northern climes) have always seemed to need a ward against December cold and dark, and the colorless sky. Seasonal depressive whatever has been with us for millennia. But theologically, there's more to this annual profusion of fire and the flashing electro-technics in some of our front yards.
Generally the thread is hope. The Hanukkah menorah is about confidence in God's unending, miracle-making faithfulness to Israel. The Yule log welcomes the birth of the sun at the dawn of a new solar year, promising green when things are brown and frozen solid. The little candles held by churchgoers singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve celebrate the newborn Christ child, who will grow up to defeat death with divine love. It's all future. Visions for better things to come, and energy to hold on to those visions when adversities threaten to overwhelm them.
Needless to say, hope is precious in these days of global warming, inflamed hatreds, outrageous injustice, wars and rumors of wars. It is tempting to put our heads down and avoid the chaos and suffering. It is easy to become cynical. At the same time, though, we see individuals and communities all over the world acting with tremendous hope and creativity, coming up with new ways to reconcile, feed, and heal. Check out the new Ode and Yes magazines, which are dedicated to reporting on these many positive actors. They are examples of what evangelical social justice activist Jim Wallis' calls hope: "believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change."
As I learn a little more about Buddhism, I am discovering yet another way to understand the urge to light a candle in darkness. Buddhists aren't much on hope. Their focus is on the present. To them, a light in the night means awareness. And acceptance. It signifies the vow to wake up fully to reality, be it painful or happy, December or June, and to persevere with unconditional friendliness toward the whole thing, starting with ourselves and spreading out in lovingkindness toward all the other people who are in the same boat. This too then can manifest as energy for compassionate action.
Perhaps the common thread running through both interpretations is loyalty. It's about staying steady, standing firm, remaining loyal to the light, however you understand that. The believer can see the flame and remember, "God is with us," tapping into a most profound well of meaning and hope no matter what the situation. The Buddhist can see it and be restored to clarity, resolving again to seek good steadfastly.
There is a story told by a former member of the Stasi, the East German security force during the Communist era. It was close to the time when the Berlin Wall and the entire corrupt state would fall, and he and his colleagues were working feverishly to prevent this. They broke up resistance groups. They arrested activists. They established strict curfews. He said, "We did absolutely everything we needed to do to disrupt the uprising."
In the midst of this tense time, people started to come out each night to one of the old churches in East Berlin. They would pray and sing and speak out, then silently light candles and walk out into the night. One night it was a few hundred people. The next it was five hundred. The next it was a thousand and the next, three thousand. The numbers swelled as many who had remained silent for decades finally came together for a new day.
The Stasi agent, looking back after the wall was down, said, "We had every base covered. We left nothing to chance. But we hadn't counted on the candles."