Every December when I was a small child, I watched my mother place a single electric candle in each window of our big old farmhouse. When evening came, I trailed her from window to window as she gave a little twist to each bulb – and its light shone out into the darkness.
I follow her example. On December evenings, I go to each window of my house and give that little twist to light the candle there, releasing its light into the night.
What a powerful image is a lit candle in the darkness! For us of the northern hemisphere, last week’s winter solstice brought the longest darkness of the year. Here in Pennsylvania that meant the sun was with us less than six hours. It’s not surprising that we humans are drawn so strongly to a burning candle as it spreads its light into the December night.
It’s significant that lighted candles proclaim the truths of December’s holy days and winter festivals. The candles of Hanukkah tell the story of the miracle of the lamp in the temple of Jerusalem. When the rebuilt temple was to be dedicated, the holy lamp contained only enough oil for one day – but it lasted eight days! (I Maccabees 4:59) During Kwanzaa which celebrates the culture and expresses the hopes of people of African descent, the seven candles proclaim seven unifying principles. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa and each of the eight days of Hanukkah are marked by lighting another candle.
Christians traditionally have lit four candles during the four weeks of Advent and ended with the fifth candle, the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve worship often concludes with worshippers passing the light of their candles down the row, lighting each tilted candle in turn until everyone’s face is softly lit and the whole church glows.
A worship service with everyone holding a lit candle is a powerful reminder that we humans are truly bearers of light. The candles become symbols of the Divine Light that lives within each of us. It affirms for us that we can bring the Light of God into dark places. Quakers call this the Inner Light, or sometimes the Inner Christ. It is a reminder that we all have that of God within us.
When we pay attention to the Divine Light within, our own path forward becomes less confusing. We understand more how to live in love, how to let our unique Light shine forth. Many years ago, during a time when I was confused and struggling to find my way, I talked with my friend Beverly, a wise Quaker woman. This is what she told me:
Nancy, you are standing in darkness and you can’t see the way forward. But you carry a lantern that spreads light enough for one step forward. When you take that step, the light moves with you and illuminates another step. You will always have the light: it is within you.
The candles of December speak to us of Light that is more than a temporary bulb glowing on my window sill. There is the Hanukkah miracle of a lamp that keeps on burning. There are the Kwanzaa candles that call one to faithfully live the foundational principles. There is the Christ candle that reminds us that we are Light.
The apostle John wrote The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5) As we enter the new year of 2023, may your Light shine brightly.
If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with another.