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TO LIGHT A CANDLE

December 12, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

December 13 is the feast day of Saint Lucia.  The name Lucia means light. The celebration is associated with Scandinavian countries where winter darkness comes early and stays long.  In traditional celebrations, a young woman dressed as Saint Lucia brings light and sweet treats to her family. The girl wears a wreath of lighted candles as a crown.

Our daughter, Betsy, was given such a crown with battery-powered candles by her fairy godmother, a longtime family friend. Wearing her glowing diadem, Betsy enjoyed playing the part of Saint Lucia, usually serving Moravian sugar cake to our family early on the morning of December 13.

We still have the Saint Lucia wreath. The candles no longer work, but our granddaughters take turns wearing the crown. It has become a family tradition.

Candles are a part of spiritual practice in many religions.  Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism regard camphor candles as elements of devotional practice. In other traditions, votive candles are lighted to accompany the prayers of the faithful.  

Several years ago, I taught an upper level religion class at the University of South Carolina Upstate entitled Celtic Religion through the Ages. Our study took us through an examination of ancient Celtic religion, followed by a transition to early Celtic Christianity.

Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has come through two academic disciplines. One is European archaeology. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, circa 800–450 Before the Common Era.

The second discipline is the study of the classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who knew of the Celtic tribes. These early testaments describe the Celts as feared warriors. Men and women fought together. The men often went into battle wearing only blue body paint and a neck ring. They carried a shield and a short sword. Julius Caesar gives a detailed description of these people and their culture. Clearly, he had much respect for them.

Though generally regarded as uncivilized barbarians who practiced pagan religion, the Celts lived in an organized society. The Druids were their religious leaders. They served as priests and prophets, as judges, and as philosophers. Spiritual practices centered on the solar and lunar rhythms of the universe. Summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinox, were observed with important religious rituals sometimes involving human sacrifice.

As the winter solstice approached, the Druids were fearful that the sun’s light was receding from the earth. The diminishing light meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return.

The practice of bringing light into the homes of the Celts became the root of two of our most important religious observances of this season.

The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah almost always coincide. Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families celebrate the holiday by lighting candles in a menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 10 and continues through December 18.

The Gospel of John (10:22) records an interesting event from the life of Jesus. “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This passage indicates that Jesus observed Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king from Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the Temple, and the Torah scrolls were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the “abomination of desecration.”  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to the Jewish faith.

Under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. They entered the Temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing God’s presence in the Temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, eight days were required to consecrate new oil. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper is the servant candle and is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

The scriptures speak of God as “the light in whom there is no darkness.”  For Christians, Christmas celebrations include symbols of that heavenly light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts. He struggled toward a faint light in the distance. It grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family. They offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man, a chair by the fireplace, and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

I have a favorite story that I tell during Advent.

From the time our children were preschoolers, we have displayed a wreath that we purchased in Old Salem on a table in our foyer.  We found the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon lifted a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created of cornhusk doll Nativity figures.

Each Sunday in Advent, we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the appropriate candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. After reading a Scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace, we sang a Christmas carol.

As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures burst into flames!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the burning wreath and started to dash toward the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I stopped in my tracks, turned on my heels, and detoured to the guest bathroom just across the hall. I jerked back the shower curtain, dropped the wreath into the tub, turned on the faucet, and doused the flames with water.

The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned to a crisp. A few were charred but still recognizable.

To this day, we display a wreath with the manger scene of cornhusk figures. Some of them are replacements. Others are scorched survivors of the fire. I have reworked the wreath. The paper Moravian star has been replaced. We still have candles on the wreath, but, for obvious reasons, we never light them.

The cornhusks nativity scene singed in the fire is a reminder of God’s protection for those who suffer. This year the charred figures remind me to pray for those who have been ill with the COVID-19 virus. So many have died. I pray for the grief-stricken who have lost loved ones during this terrible pandemic.

I am reminded to intercede for victims of hate crimes, war and famine, floods and fire. I ask God’s blessing for all who bear the scars of life into the season of light. This is a time to light a candle as an expression of faith and hope.

Whatever your holiday traditions may be, the wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, be careful with those candles!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

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