A lit candle in a holy space is a common experience in many religious communities.
A “diya” is a small candle-like light in a clay pot lit during “poojas,” prayers. These small lights create a visual for the worshiper’s mind and heart as they offer prayers and gifts to God.
Candles lighting a path to the Buddha symbolize enlightenment of the Buddha and in turn, the hope for individual enlightenment.
Lit candles in a cathedral stand side by side represent prayers of hope or healing. Some are lit with direct intention or in memory of a loved one. Other candles stand for prayers broad and expansive. Where words cannot be found, a burning light replaces unknown yearning.
It is more than a prayer for our collective experiences. The light of a candle represents a small piece of whatever it is we carry daily.
Another holy ground where we witnessed light was during last summer’s protests and demonstrations. Folks in the U.S. and around the world lit candles in solidarity with the family of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery as they grieved the loss of their beloved children but also the painful reality of white supremacy.
In every instance, a common theme, the small flickers or late persisting, demanding our collective attention and drawing us into its path. The light all the while knowing that its wick will destroy in slow and subtle ways the wax and reality around it.
Flames as big as bonfires roaring in the season of Pentecost and as small as delicate wicks needing protection from a gust of wind. All are prayers for our collective experiences. The light of a candle represents a small piece of whatever it is we carry daily.
The light burned bright, taking up the space that darkness could not.
In one teaching of Hinduism, fire, “agni,” is a tool of purification. First, it burns and destroys what no longer gives life. Then, it creates an opportunity for new life.
Agni. For light, it seems, is what ignites our imaginations and hearts toward connecting to the Divine.
It is no wonder that in centuries full of changing Advent traditions, what remains is the Advent wreath. Four candles slowly drawing us into the center candle signifying the end of life as we know it.
What we recognize today as the Advent wreath is due in part to a German pastor who created a way for impatient children to follow along during the season. As it turns out, children don’t do well with 40 days of fasting until Christmas.
In early representations of the candles, they represented the journey to salvation. The first candle represents the forgiveness of Adam and Eve, the second candle the faith of Abraham and the patriarchs, the third the joy of David, and the fourth and final candle the teaching of the prophets who foretold of the king of justice and peace.
All illuminating the middle candle, the Christ candle we light on Christmas Eve night, signifying the arrival of Love incarnate. Centuries later, we have boiled it down to four simple words in the four Sundays of the season: hope, peace, joy, and love.
I wonder if after 200 years, these words and their symbolism will have lost their depth. Which is a wonder to me as the church of Jesus Christ remains largely the same, unwilling to let the fires of faith destroy what no longer serves our larger community.
What good are the flames of Advent, Lent, Pentecost, or the Paschal candle if we refuse to let go of darkness? What good is the light if we continue to try and hide it?
If you have been paying attention to church trends, then you have seen the reports of ministerial staff resigning across the country as part of the “Great Resignation.” Churches were no exception to the occurrence, and it is a sign that after many clergy had more time to sit and ponder their work and calling, they chose to leave a place that lights candles of hope, peace, love, and joy.
Perhaps, this year, it is time to give a new name to the candles of Advent. Or, maybe, this year you need permission to name each candle and burn them in honor of whatever it is you need to shine bright or burn to the ground.
Where the word hope does not suffice, maybe the word “breathe” reminds you that air coming from within you is the same breath the creator of the universe offered as a gift and called it good.
Does peace feel passive to you this year? Was that word used to silence you or others? Maybe, this year, disruption is what you need, what we need as people of faith.
What does joy look like this year? How will you embody the softness of joy or the dissidence of joy in the face of empire?
What does love mean to you? Does it mean reconciliation? Healing? Yearning?
In a season where we anticipate the coming of a liberator, light your candles and let them mean whatever it is that prepares you to destroy whatever no longer serves Love incarnate.