Lights, twinkle, candles, fire
by Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, Claremont United Methodist Church
We are approaching the longest night of the year with the coming winter solstice on December 21. When light is in short supply we humans find ways to supply it, for darkness holds fears that loom larger when there is no hope for light.
Light is a symbol for many things, hope being among them. You will find in most religions references to light or practices that include light. Many of us who are Christian observe the practice of lighting Advent candles as we approach Christmas, the observance of the birth of Jesus, which is followed by Epiphany.
Jews recently completed the observance of Hanukkah, which includes lighting candles for eight days remembering the miracle of the oil that kept the lamps lit for eight days during the rededication of the Temple.
Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists celebrate a festival of lights, a five-day festival called Diwali when everyone rejoices in the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. It is celebrated by lighting small clay oil lamps and with fireworks. It is observed in October or November, depending on the year.
In Islam, light is a symbol of knowledge and of faith. The Holy Qur’an describes God as the “Light of the heavens and Earth.” In Islam, light is a symbol of knowledge and of faith.
After Christmas, some observe Kwanzaa, which includes lighting candles for seven days for seven principles. I’m sure there are many more examples of how the symbol of light is used in various faith practices as well as non-religious observances.
It makes sense. Our ancestors of long ago lived with a stronger connection to Earth than most of us do. They lived in agricultural societies and their very lives depended on their relationship with soil, water, air, fire, light and dark. Without electricity, they planned their lives to accommodate the darkness when it became so prevalent. They knew how to preserve and store their food. Their lives echoed the rhythms of the cycle of Earth. When the nights were long and dark, having a fire or a lantern reminded them of the spring yet to come when barrenness would give way to tiny shoots that grew into food that would allow them to live.
Most of us in this part of the world are not limited by darkness because we can turn on a switch and make it light. In fact, we generate so much light that it can be difficult to discern the stars in the sky at night. But we strain our necks and eyes in the dark with hope to find the twinkle of a star that reminds us we are not alone.
Most religious expression includes hope. Different traditions will hope for different things, but the state of being hopeful is something we share. Most religious expression includes hope that life will be better for all humanity and for our earth home. We will differ on what actions are needed to try to make progress, but the hope is shared.
We long for homelessness to become a memory of the past; we yearn for quality education for all of our children; we hope for good health care for all people; we seek that day when prejudice and discrimination due to skin color or sexual orientation or religious practice will no longer hurt a brother or sister. Oh, we hope.
Hope is not passive, however. Hope leads us to act so that hope, joined with that of others, makes changes for the good of all creation. It’s not easy, for we are beautifully diverse and we must listen to one another and learn from each other.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a writer on Jewish mysticism, sees the wintertime urge to turn to the light as an act of hope.
“At the darkest time of year,” he says, “the tiniest bit of light reminds us that we are all literally whistling in the dark and hoping, by these rituals of miracles of candle lights and bulbs on evergreens, we remember the divine presence.”
It is true that misguided ideas of religion have added to the darkness of our world. There is no perfection in our human behavior or ideas. That’s why listening to each other is so vital to hope.
There are many candles burning during these cold dark days and nights of winter. More than just decoration, let them be symbols of hope that light does follow darkness and that our acts of love and kindness are never lost. The smallest act of kindness or thoughtfulness shown to another really does matter. It is a flame, a twinkle, a fire that says there is a way forward for good.