In the days of apartheid in South Africa, one of the ways people expressed their opposition and their belief that someday it would be overcome, was to light a candle and put it in a window where it could be seen by anyone passing by. A lit candle, publicly displayed, made a prophetic statement. It didn’t take long for the government to react. Placing a lit candle in your window became a criminal offense, equivalent to carrying an illegal firearm. The irony wasn’t lost on children. They joked, “Our government is afraid of lit candles!”
And well they should be! To light a candle for a moral or religious reason (be it for protest, for Hanukkah, for Advent, or for Christmas) is to make a prophetic statement of faith and, in essence, make a public prayer.
Admittedly, this can be hard to read inside the glow of the millions of Christmas tree lights that we see everywhere. Why do we put up all these lights at Christmas? A cynical answer suggests that this is done for purely commercial purposes. As well, for many of us, these lights are simply a question of aesthetics, color, and celebration, mostly devoid of any religious meaning. However, even here, there is still something deeper going on. Why do we put up lights at Christmas? Why do we light our homes and our streets with colorful lights at this time of year?
No doubt, we do it for color, for celebration, and for commercial reasons; but we also do it because, more deeply, it expresses a faith, however inchoately this might still be felt, that in Christ a final victory has been won and light has forever conquered darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Our Christmas lights are, in the end, an expression of faith and in essence a public prayer. Nevertheless, we might still ask, to what end? What difference can this possibly make? Putting up lights as a symbol of faith can seem like a very insignificant and naïve thing to do in the face of the seeming overwhelming darkness of our world. We look at our world and we see millions suffering from the war, millions of refugees on borders around the world, and hundreds of millions suffering from food shortages. As well, when we know that thousands of people every day are dying from domestic violence, drug violence, and gang violence, and when we see tension everywhere within our governments, our churches, our neighborhoods, and our families, we might ask ourselves, what difference do our little string of lights, or indeed all the Christmas lights in the world, make?
Well, in the words of the late Jesuit Michael Buckley, prayer is most needed, just when it is deemed most useless. These are words to hang onto. Given the magnitude of our world’s problems, given the magnitude of the darkness that threatens us, now more than ever, it is imperative that we express our faith publicly, as a prayer. Now, more than ever, we need to show publicly that we still believe faith works, that we still believe in the power of prayer, and that we still believe that, in Christ, the power of darkness has been forever overcome.
This is expressed wonderfully in a poem John Shea inscribed inside his Christmas card this year.
Our Christmas trees want to talk to us
The greater darkness of December can take its toll and strengthen what afflicts us.
Our Christmas trees beg to differ. Their branches are full, leafy, strung with lights.
The brightness is defiant.
We want a perfect world.
But that is not always what we get.
We may experience catastrophic weather; a pandemic; threatened health; overstressed work, dipping finances, struggling relationships, and society and world either slightly or wildly insane.
Our Christmas trees glow. Their lights whisper;
“Give all the things that afflict you their due, but do not give them your soul.
You are more than the surrounding darkness.
While struggling to overcome apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was sometimes confronted by military personnel who came into his church while he was preaching, flashing their guns to intimidate him. He would smile at them and say, “I’m glad you have come to join the winning side!” In saying this, he wasn’t talking about the apartheid struggle; he was talking about the forever victory that Christ has won for us. The most important of all battles has already been won, and our faith puts us on the winning side. Our Christmas lights express this, however consciously unaware of it we may be.
Karl Rahner once wrote that, at Christmas, God gives us sacred permission to be happy. Christmas also assures us that we have more than sufficient grounds to be happy, regardless of what might still be happening in our lives and in our world. We can be defiant in the face of everything that demands we be downcast. Our Christmas lights express that defiance.