A friend tells me how, as a small girl growing up in the Bronx, she used to pester her older siblings to let her join in their games. One day, to her astonishment, they agreed. As the children of recently arrived Italian immigrants, they were very proud to call themselves New Yorkers, so this particular small New Yorker was allowed to be the Statue of Liberty in their game. They produced a box for her to stand on, placed a flashlight in her hand and instructed her to stand there, holding up the light to inspire all who entered the harbor. And there she stood while they got on with their own game. I don’t know how long it took her to realize what they had done, but the story reminds me that those who carry the light will often find themselves in lonely and exposed situations.
A recent television documentary in the United Kingdom recalled how important it was during wartime to keep the light of normality shining in a dark night. An elderly woman was sharing her memories of Christmas during the blitz in London in 1940. She remembered how the nearby subway station, in which the local people had found shelter from the air raids, had been transformed into a festive space for a children’s party, including a large Christmas tree. A ladder had been placed behind the tree, and she had been chosen to be the 5-year-old fairy, to sit at the top of the ladder and hold the Christmas star. Another proud little light-bearer.
In a few days’ time, on Feb. 2, we will celebrate the feast of Candlemas, perhaps more familiar as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Traditionally, in Europe, the Christmas crib stays out until Candlemas. At the presentation, the child is hailed as “a God-revealing light” (Lk 2:32, Message translation), but this is the light that will not fade when the Christmas crib is dismantled.
The light is more needed than ever in our world today. The dark night seems to enshroud us and the storm clouds gather. How will that light shine in our own dark streets? We may bless the candles in church, but unless we carry the light out into a troubled world, the blessing will never be effective. There are many small ways of doing this and a few big and bold ways. Some lights scan the world like searchlights, seeking out and publicly exposing dishonesty and hypocrisy in the highest places, courageously speaking truth to power even under threat of extreme sanctions, because the light of truth will always provoke a savage response from the powers of darkness. Other lights flicker less dramatically, but with gentle determination, speaking a word of praise and encouragement when all around are grumbling and criticizing, or taking time to have a conversation with a neglected neighbor whose loneliness goes unnoticed.
In December 2010, in a small town in the English Midlands, it happened that there was no money in the public purse to pay for the usual festive street lighting, the lights from previous years having become largely unserviceable. Most people in the town complained and demanded that the local council should do something about it. A few decided to take action. One man, an electrician by trade, took it upon himself to repair the broken lights and bring them all back into service. Others brought their various skills to the task or rallied local businesses and raised some modest funding. The activists appeared on television, dressed as elves and delighted to have lit up the town again and given its people cause for celebration by inspiring their fellow citizens to take responsibility themselves for bringing light to their world.
Candlemas might be a good time to pause and ponder any situations in which we might ourselves choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Sometimes it will seem that we are left, like my friend in the Bronx, holding a light that nobody values while the world gets on with its own games. Sometimes the light we hold will be challenged to keep shining, like a lighthouse on a rocky coastline, in the face of death and destruction. We must be like the wartime fairy, who held her star as a sign that however bad things are we will never forget that we are human beings who know how to celebrate the things that matter.
Candlelight is contagious. One candle can light a thousand more, without itself being diminished. It is a flicker of hope capable of dispelling a fog of despair. In the words of Helen Prejean, C.S.J., “When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ.’”