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November 27, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered 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. During this season of light, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Tyger River Presbyterian Church is hosting an Advent art display from the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, through Epiphany, January 6. The theme of the art presentation, “The Light Breaks Through,” is appropriate to the season of Advent.

The concept of light breaking through has solid Biblical roots. The Book of Genesis declares, “In the beginning …. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep…. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The magnificence of creation began with light breaking through the chaos.

In Hebrew scripture, the Word of God gives illumination, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) The prophet Isaiah says the people of Israel are to give guidance to others. “I will also give You as a light to the nations, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

The Christian tradition continues and amplifies many Jewish theological concepts. The idea of light breaking through the darkness is one shining example. It is from Isaiah that the Christian Church has identified passages that foretell a coming Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them, a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

The theme of the light breaking through continues in the writings of the Apostle John. In the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, John sounds the decisive note of Christian theology when he proclaims about Jesus. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

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 (B.C.E.).

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 feared that the sun’s light would recede 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.

Beyond the Biblical account, both Jews and Christians find light to be an appropriate symbol of hope, which is intertwined with faith. 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 coincides with the first week of Advent. The Jewish celebration begins at sundown on November 28 and continues through December 6.

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 menorah candles. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

My youngest brother, Bob, died on November 9 of this year. Bob was a man of many talents. He was a gifted Bible teacher, a faithful pastor, and a delightful storyteller. He ran the family lumberyard until it closed in 2008. He then became an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. Bob was always a source of light for people of all ages, especially for those going through difficult times.

Just after he was diagnosed with cancer, I shared with Bob the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is a spiritually enriching read for many people. One of her suggestions is that we regain our sense of lunar rhythm. We have flooded our world with artificial light to the point that we have lost touch with the experiences of night and especially an appreciation of the moon.

We both recalled a childhood memory of a fishing calendar on the wall of the lumberyard that had the phases of the moon indicated. Another memory was reading the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Then, we called to mind David Tanner.

David Tanner worked for our Uncle Asbury, who was a building contractor. David did all kinds of jobs for my uncle, from screeding poured concrete to laying brick. David was not a skilled carpenter, but he helped other carpenters frame many a house. He was always cheerful, usually singing, and he was a diligent worker.

David lived on the King Line behind the old stockyard, located not far from our home. Though crippled with arthritis, he would walk from his home, past our house, on his way to the lumberyard.  There he purchased his daily Coca-Cola. 

Often David would stop at our house, sit in a rocking chair on the front porch to enjoy his Coca-Cola, and then shuffle on to his home.  Many mornings I would take a mug of coffee and join David on the porch. Those were the times when I received my philosophy lesson.

David was quite a churchman. He loved going to church, and he especially enjoyed singing in the choir.  David’s church built a new sanctuary. He invited me to come to the dedication. My dad and I went together to the Sunday afternoon service, all three hours of it.  

After the service, David showed us around the church in which he took so much pride.  He explained that the church didn’t have stained glass windows. I will never forget the way that he expressed it.

“We don’t have none of them windows with people on ’em that the light shines through.” 

What a phrase!  “People that the light shines through.” 

When you know people like Bob Neely and David Tanner, you don’t need stained glass windows.  The light breaks through in many ways, often in people like David and my brother Bob. They were the kind of people that the light shines through.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at

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