Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 10, 2001
Is there a Christian feast of lights?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Just recently, I was reading about the Hindu Feast of Lights. What would you consider as the Christian Feast of Lights?
The symbolic meaning of light figures prominently in Christianity. Really, our whole faith is a celebration of the light who is Christ, the "light of the world," as Jesus calls himself in John 9:5. John's prologue refers to Jesus as "the light of humanity, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower" (1:4, 5).
Before his death, Jesus refers to himself as "the light (which) will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light. . . . While you still have the light, believe in the light and you will become children of light" (John 12:35-36).
Again in the same chapter, Jesus declares publicly, "I, the light, have come into the world" (46).
Let's get a glimpse of how Jesus as light of the world is incorporated into our liturgy, our feasts and our lives.
Actually, every Sunday is a feast of light for Sunday represents Christ's victory over death on the first day of the week. Even the name that we use in English, Sunday, illustrates that Christ is light and life-giving as is the sun.
Christians inherited the blessing and lighting of lights as part of the Jewish evening ceremonial meal. Because of the meaning of light as Christ among them, Christians continued the use of lights even when they began to celebrate in the morning. We have kept the custom of lighting candles for Eucharistic celebrations, as well as other services and prayers, including often our private prayers.
One major Christian feast of lights is Christmas. Although we do not know the exact date of Jesus' birth, we believe that the feast of the Persian sun god, Mithra was celebrated at the winter solstice. The choice by the early Church of Dec. 25 may have been related to this sun god cult and the winter solstice.
The significance of this time of year when daylight begins to increase and conquer the darkness is appropriate for celebrating the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. It certainly depicts for us, in the northern hemisphere, quite clearly that the birth of Jesus brings the light of God into the world.
Obvious to all is the display of lights of many and varying kinds we see at this time of year. Both indoors and outdoors, blazing lights proclaim, intentionally or not, Christ as light of the world. Our churches too are ablaze with lights as we celebrate Christ's birth in the middle of the night. The darkness of night is blotted out and with the coming of the light of Christ, sin and ignorance is erased.
We have inherited Christmas customs from various parts of the world and many of these are about lights. The Advent wreath has four candles, one for each week which progressively symbolize the coming of Jesus, the light of the world.
The use of a large Christmas candle, representing Christ, is an ancient tradition. Sometimes, this large candle is placed in the centre of the Advent wreath. Sometimes, it is burned with the yule log or placed in a window.
The official closing of the celebration of this feast of light was 40 days after Christmas on Feb. 2. Celebrated in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century, it was originally called the Day of Saint Simeon from his words in the Gospel read that day that Jesus would be "a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people, Israel" (Luke 2:32).
By the end of the seventh century, it was celebrated in Rome with a candlelight procession. It was called Candlemass because candles were blessed to burn in homes to remind us constantly of Jesus as light of the world. Now it is retained mainly as a commemoration of Jesus' presentation in the Temple.
The heart of Christianity and a glorious feast of light is Easter. For the first three centuries, this was the only feast observed by Christians. The resurrection of Christ took place as the night turned into day, so it was natural to celebrate in the dark of night when the symbolism of Christ as the light glowing in the darkness is vivid.
The lighting of the new fire and especially the paschal candle representing Christ becomes a powerful experience each year of Christ's victory over death and the darkness of sin.
As we light our own candles from the paschal candle, we accept the challenge given us by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, "You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (5:14, 16).
So like Jesus, we, too, holding our candles blazing with the Light of Christ, become light to one another and to our world. For each of us, it becomes a magnificent and joyful responsibility to carry this light of Christ within our hearts to our homes and workplaces thus bringing God's peace, joy and love to all in each of our daily encounters.