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A beacon of hope: The importance of light in religion

Light plays a central role in religion. For Christmas, we explore why this single simple symbol is so powerful.

Dec. 22, 2011   |  
The light of the world: Baby Jesus beams in Rembrandt’s <i>Adoration of the Shepherds</i>.
The light of the world: Baby Jesus beams in Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds. / Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn/Getty Images/The Bri


We sparkle with joy! Hope shines in our bleakest hour. Our minds brighten with wisdom.

From the Star of Bethlehem in the Gospel to the candle symbol of enlightenment popular with religious skeptics to the billions of bucks Americans spend for twinkling bulbs on the porch, we’re captivated by the universal spiritual gifts of light. It illuminates spirits, minds and hearts in every culture, scripture and mythology.

Every major world religion speaks a language of light.

Sunday is Christmas, when billions of believers say Christ was born to be the light of the world, fulfilling God’s first gift to the heavens and earth: “Let there be light.”

Sunday night, Jews worldwide light the sixth candle on their menorahs, eight-branch candelabras, to celebrate the Hanukkah miracle of enduring faith triumphing over evil.

Monday is Kwanzaa, the secular celebration of black culture. Seven candles, symbolic of the celebration’s seven principles, will rise from wooden stands meant to recall roots in Africa.

Diwali, the festival when a billion Hindus, Sikhs and Jains light lanterns and small earthen lamps, made nights glow this October. Lights awaken awareness of God and the triumph of good over evil.

Muslims speak of Allah as the source of light — inspiring, motivating and guiding God’s people.

Yet, neither God nor faith is required to find the deepest beauty in light from the cosmos, an artist’s canvas or a song.

Candles symbolize “reason surrounded by unreason and superstition,” notes atheist writer Chris Mooney, host of the Point of Inquiry podcasts for the Center for Inquiry, which has a candle logo.

It’s inherent in our nature, says Spike Bucklow of Cambridge University, a chemist who teaches the restoration of easel painting.

“We aren’t creatures that can see in the dark. We require light to see. Whether we’re religious or atheist, scientist or philosopher, we all share the word in our ordinary understanding of the world.

“‘I see the light’ means ‘I get it.’ An argument can be ‘clear.’ Something explained well is ‘lucid,’” Bucklow says. In Western art every nativity scene, like Rembrandt’s 1646 Adoration of the Shepherds, has the darkness of the world reversed by the Christ child, beaming from a manger.

Light is a wordless message that singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer nonetheless finds ways to explore in an album about shadows, Geography of Light. On her newest album, Everything Is Everywhere, a song titled Shine calls out: So count the stars that shine tonight
/ As if each star were prayers in flight.

“As a poet, who jumps secular and spiritual lines daily, part of my job is to put into language and melody the experiences we all have for which we don’t have words,” Newcomer says.

She treasures the Quaker expression “I’ll hold you in the light” instead of “I’ll pray for you.” It signifies “a greater light that infuses the world and each and every one of us, a light that we don’t always have a name for like God or Allah.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a writer on Jewish mysticism, sees the wintertime urge to turn to the light as an act of hope. “At the darkest time of year,” he says, “the tiniest bit of light reminds us that we are all literally whistling in the dark and hoping, by these rituals of miracles of candle lights and bulbs on evergreens, we remember the divine presence.”

The power of light is both incomprehensibly vast and as simple as an act of kindness.

“Jesus tells us to let our lights so shine that others will see the good works of God, to be luminaries in a murky world,” says the Rev. Johnny Hunt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of a megachurch in Woodstock, Ga.

“Light is the measure of the universe. It all comes together for one instant — instant after instant after instant,” says Jennifer Tipton, a MacArthur “genius” winner for her lighting design for ballet and theater. At Christmas, however, Tipton retreats to a little home in Maine with minimal decorations. “I go with the starlight and the moonlight,” she says.

Still, millions of Americans have craved more, more, more on December nights ever since the first electric-powered string of red, white and blue bulbs lit a Christmas tree in 1882.

Trend maven Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing expects Americans to spend $3.8 billion on holiday lights this year — $1.2 billion for indoor sparkle and $2.6 billion for outdoor illumination, according to Unity’s latest Christmas and Seasonal Decorating Report.

Maybe we just have to.

“Light is in our psyche,” says Joyce Rupp,a Catholic sister with the Servants of Mary, who leads spiritual retreats. “We are the people who long for dawn and the warmth of light, like the sun that creates new life ...

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