Celebrating the light

Woensdregt: Celebrating the light

Yme Woensdregt

We can see the bright lights all around us at this time of year. Wonderful cascades of light are making our neighbourhoods more beautiful as homeowners decorate their houses and lawns. The lights seem to dance in the night sky, icicles hanging from the gutters and brilliant dioramas on lawns giving the illusion of movement as the lights flicker off and on in wondrous patterns. In picture windows, we see Christmas trees garlanded with strings of coloured lights.

Our cities join in with displays on the streets, in the parks, and on the light poles. We are celebrating a festival of light as we edge towards the winter solstice. It seems to be a natural human impulse to find ways to lighten the darkness as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.

That seems to be even more true in these waning days of 2020. It’s been such a difficult year, and as we come to the end of the year, we need to shine with a little extra brightness. It seems to be a profoundly human impulse rooted deep within us to brighten up the darkest days, and it’s such a wondrous thing to see.

Particularly this year, there seems to be a stronger desire not just to see the light, but to be the light. We seem to be learning that if there is to be light, we need to be the ones who shine in the darkness of this pandemic.

I am also very mindful that a light seems to be dawning with the advent of a vaccine which promises to bring an end to this time. I watched the news reports of the first people to be vaccinated, and I was struck by the light in the eyes of those receiving the vaccine, and even more profoundly, in the eyes of the health care workers who gave them the vaccine. The promise is so bright, and we rejoice.

I believe that religious festivals of light are rooted in this human impulse to shine as the nights grow longer and darker.

Christmas is a good example. There is no good reason to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World at this time of year. After all, nobody knows when Jesus was born. The Bible doesn’t say. In fact, the earliest Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

The first written record we have of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 comes from the year 336. That’s a whole 340 years after the actual event.

Why that date? It was the date on which the Roman Empire celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) which marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice. It came at the end of the festival of Saturnalia, a popular festival marked by feasting and giving gifts.

Until the year 312, Christianity was illegal. It seems such a natural thing that as Christianity became legitimate, the church would want to celebrate its own festival at the same time as Saturnalia. What better festival than to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World for Christians. So it began for the church.

Other religions also celebrate festivals of light at this time of year.

Millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains across the world celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights. Each candle symbolizes the power of light to conquer darkness. For Hindus, this festival is also a time to contemplate and dispel the darkness of ignorance.

Jews celebrate the eight–day and night festival of Hanukkah. A candle is lighted on each day in the menorah, until the festival ends with a blaze of light. This celebration is a time for faithful Jews to reflect on their calling to be light in the world.

Indigenous peoples light the sacred fire at the beginning of any ceremony or sacred event. The light of the fire is a spiritual doorway that opens to a spiritual realm. The sacred fire is never left alone, it is watched and attended to by a Fire Keeper. People gather around the fire for ceremony and conversation.

Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means “first” and signifies the first fruits of the harvest. It is becoming more common to celebrate this festival at the end of the year, which incorporates practices of an ancient spirituality from Africa and elsewhere. Light is used in this celebration as a symbol of the seven principles—Unity; Self-Determination; Collective Work and Responsibility; Cooperative Economics; Purpose; Creativity; Faith. Each principle is symbolized with a candle. A kinara is the candle holder that holds the seven candles. Each night a candle is lit, and families talk about one of the seven principles. This is done each night until all the candles are lit.

Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of the Child who is worshipped as the Light of the World. That’s why, for Christians, Advent is a season of growing light. We light one candle each week until the world blazes with the light which shines in the darkness.

It strikes me that the world’s religions have internalized this deep and profound human impulse to beat back the darkness. It is not only the deepening darkness of nights which grow longer. It is also about illuminating the darkness of ignorance and evil.

It bears witness, I think, to our need to be the light. We are the ones who shine with the light. Unfortunately, we also have the power to extinguish the light through wars, inquisitions, prejudice, hatred, and fear.

But a higher and nobler impulse is to use our power to shine more brightly in our world. We join hands with people of other faiths, and people of no faith, people of good will, to seek the light. Our brightly lit neighbourhoods reminds me of our impulse to do so. My prayer is that we continue to shine with light and with love all year long.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, updates British Columbians about COVID-19 at a press conference earlier this week. (B.C. Government image)
B.C.’s 1st case of COVID-19 confirmed a year ago today

Here’s a look at some of the key dates in the province’s fight against the novel coronavirus

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Interior Health reports 2 more deaths, 83 new COVID-19 cases

Health authority also identifies new virus cluster in Fernie

Columbia Basin Trust is asking residents across the region to test their internet speeds so the Trust can better identify which areas aren’t meeting service expectations. (Columbia Basin Trust file)
Columbia Basin Trust asks residents to test internet speeds

Several communities across the Basin region, including Moyie, are asked to take the test

South Columbia Search and Rescue called in the Nelson Search and Rescue and Kootenay Valley Helicopters to provide a long line rescue. Photo: BCSAR submitted.
Long-line rescue needed for injured hiker near Trail

Members of South Columbia and Nelson SAR and Kootenay Valley Helicopters did a long-line evacuation

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Grad student Marisa Harrington and her supervisor Lynneth Stuart-Hill say preliminary results from a study into the affects of stress on hospital nurses show an impact on sleep and heart variability. (Courtesy of Marisa Harrington)
University of Victoria study shows stress impact on B.C. nurses

Stress may be impacting sleep, heart health of hospital nurses in Victoria region

Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Search called off for small plane that went down in rough water south of Victoria

Plane bound for Port Angeles from Alaska believed to have one occupant, an Alaskan pilot

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Most Read