As Christmas looms on the calendar I indulge in my annual pre-season rant, grumbling about mindless consumerism, cheap sentimentality, and society-driven busyness. Bah, humbug.
But when the first Christmas lights sparkle in the winter darkness, my cynicism vanishes. Colored lights, white lights, C9s and C7s, blinking or steady, thousands upon thousands of twinkle lights. Oh, the magic of it all. Especially on a dark and bitterly cold December night, the glowing trees and decorations lift my spirits.
At my house, we spend half of the day after Thanksgiving decking the halls and each ground-floor room, breaking out the extension cords and lashing fake greenery to every available surface. It’s a bit ridiculous, but I don’t apologize. To me, our Christmassy home feels warm and festive, not Las Vegas-style crazy.
Somehow, lights during the Nativity season speak to much more than the practical human need to see after the sun sets. The lights speak to our hearts. Even rigorously secular people smile at the fairytale glow. Light brings with it warmth, clarity, and a sense of hope. Humanity responds, even if we don’t know the One who is the source of light.
If the temperature is not too unbearably cold, we love to visit the “Blossoms of Light” display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. With the night sky illuminated by hundreds of thousands of bulbs, I experience a sense of wonder and a tug at my heart that I can’t quite name. On a superficial level, I am admiring the work of talented designers and a massive labor crew that provided this electrified show, for the price of a ticket.
But on a deeper level, the beauty touches an inner longing, which C.S. Lewis described as:
that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for. You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. — The Problem of Pain, p. 146
While bundled-up visitors walk the glowing garden paths, sipping their hot cocoa, do they think about Jesus as the Light of the world? Probably not. But in a mystical way beyond words, beauty draws us to God, and even commercial, secularized artistry can provide a small foretaste of heaven.
Light in the Temple
Light fills the word pictures in the services of the Church. In the Doxology at the end of Matins, we usher our hearts into the Divine Liturgy by singing:
Glory unto God who gives the light. Glory in the highest to God, and on earth may peace reign, unto men of goodwill…. You are the eternal fount of life, and by Your light we shall see light. [From Psalm 35/36:9]
As the service progresses, we proclaim in the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is “Light of Light, true God of true God.” After we have received the Eucharist, we joyfully sing, “We have seen the light, the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.” In the prayer of thanksgiving at the close of the service, the priest affirms, “For every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from You, the Father of lights.”
Light also plays an important role in the sensory feast of Orthodox Christian worship. Beeswax candles glow in the narthex; candlelight accompanies the processions of the Gospel book and the Body and Blood of the Eucharist. Cups of oil with floating wicks burn at the altar and illumine the faces of the saints and angels encircling us in the nave. Jar candles, the offerings of the faithful, line the icon screen.
In their various forms, candles in the church and at home point us throughout the year to Christ, who is the Light.
Light from Outside Ourselves
Only by being illuminated with the light of the God-man Christ does the world open the blossom of its essence to us and thus reveals its true meaning and value. That is why the Savior said: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). — Venerable Justin (Popovic) of Chelije in Serbia, Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, p.76
We are enlightened not by the reasoning of our intellects but by God’s grace working within us. In the Divine Liturgy, before the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays, “Shine in our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind that we may comprehend the proclamations of Your Gospels.”
And God said, let there be light: and there was light (Genesis 1:3). And it must be so also at the beginning of our spiritual life, so that before anything else the light of Christ’s truth would shine within us. From this light of Christ’s truth subsequently every good is created, springs up and grows in us. — St. Nikolai Velimirovich
During December, trees that were once cloaked in shadow are transformed, not through their own inner energy but through the lights encircling their bare branches. And in the spiritual world, we are not the source of light but its reflection.
Whether it’s a mirror or a cover from a tin can, unless the rays of the sun fall upon it, it won’t shine. The Saints were enlightened by the rays of the Grace of God, just as the stars receive light from the sun. — Saint Paisios of Mount Athos, Spiritual Counsels, Vol. II: Spiritual Awakening, p.312
The People of God as Bearers of the Light to the World
Lights in the church remind us of their divine Source and also of our holy calling in Christ.
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
According to St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the candlelight in church can stir us to such selfless good works:
The light of the vigil lamp reminds us of that light by which Christ illumines our souls….In order to teach us that just as the vigil lamp cannot be lit without our hand, so too, our heart, our inward vigil lamp, cannot be lit without the holy fire of God’s grace, even if it were to be filled with all the virtues. All these virtues of ours are, after all, like combustible material, but the fire which ignites them proceeds from God.
As I drive past a particularly radiant neighborhood light display, am I always thinking such spiritual thoughts? No. More likely, I’m navigating ruts of ice and thinking about my to-do list. But for a month or so each year, the outside world helps to turn my thoughts to the Light that the Church proclaims, in song and flame, every day.
“For You will light my lamp; / The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” (Ps. 17/18:28).
In the light of God’s grace, let’s struggle together to shine His light continually.
Let us love the Bridegroom, O Brethren. Let us keep our lamps aflame with virtues and true faith, so that we, like the wise virgins of the Lord, may be ready to enter with Him into the marriage feast. For the Bridegroom, as God, grants unto all an incorruptible crown. — Kathisma Hymn of Bridegroom Matins of Holy Tuesday
Right on! Or is that light on?!
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