All over the world in the places where CNEWA serves, Christians—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—next week will be celebrating Christmas. Earlier in the month Jews around the world celebrated Hanukkah. In different ways both Christmas and Hanukkah are festivals of light.
We human are at times odd creatures. Although we spend as much of our lives in darkness as in light, we are never quite comfortable with darkness. In the modern world we really don’t know what darkness is, other than the condition that exists before we turn on the lights. Blackouts, especially in big cities, become epic events and everyone remembers where they were “when the lights went out.”
For ancient peoples, darkness was far more powerful. What artificial light there was came from candles. While the wealthy might have many candles, the poor had few. When darkness set in, life changed. No one in the ancient world would consider themselves a “night person,” unless they were thieves or robbers.
In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, light is a very important thing. Light is connected with divinity: God dwells in unapproachable light. In the highly sophisticated and even academic Nicean Creed Christ is proclaimed “Light of light.” The prophets often spoke of the people walking in darkness — and in describing the saving power of God, Isaiah (9:2) speaks of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light, which is God. The psalmist (36:9) calls God the “fountain of light” and goes on to say “in your light we see the light.” Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint and philosopher, spent a great deal of time thinking about what it means to say “in God’s light we see the light.”
Light and darkness also become metaphors for goodness and evil. One of the documents found among the Dead Sea scrolls was entitled “The Battle of the Children of Darkness with the Children of Light.” Light is good; darkness is not. Jesus himself is the light which enlightens his followers.
Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucid Greek conquerors, recalls how the menorah was able to remain lit in the Temple for seven days, despite having enough oil for only one day. Hanukkah is for Jews the festival of lights par excellence.
Interestingly, while we Christians spend much of this season stringing lights and lighting candles to mark the birth of Christ, the New Testament is silent as to the time of year in which Jesus was born. It was something which just did not interest the Gospel writers, who were concerned with who Jesus was and what his teachings were. The overwhelming event of the Resurrection made things like the date and circumstances of Jesus’ birth quite secondary. In fact, two of the Gospels—Mark and John—do not mention it at all.
As Christianity took root and grew in the Roman Empire, converts from paganism were familiar with two very important pagan celebrations that took place around the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. Those feasts were the Saturnalia and the feast of Sol invictus, “the unconquerable sun.” These feasts were set at the darkest time of the year but also precisely at the winter solstice, after which the days started to become longer. Both of these festivals were extremely popular with Romans.
Not having a concrete date for the birth of Jesus, Christians opted to take the images of light overcoming darkness of the Roman festivals and to give them new meaning with the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.
As we Christians celebrate Christmas in our electrified world, it might be helpful to reflect a bit on darkness as something more powerful and frightening that merely having the switch off. When we see the darkness of war, suffering, racism, poverty and hatred in our world, the importance of light impresses us. The light of Christ dispels and overcomes that darkness.
In his light, the followers of Christ not only see the light but are ourselves called to become lights, to live in our world as enlightened and illuminating witnesses to the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas.