December 8, 2019: A Season of Light by Chanta Bhan

By Chanta Bhan, Seminarian

In 2014, I was serving as an Associate University Chaplain at Tufts University, serving Protestant students and forging interfaith partnerships, and my students asked if we could have a special service for the first Sunday of Advent. They also had questions about the symbolism behind the Advent wreath. I did not grow up in a tradition that incorporates the Advent wreath, but their excitement fueled my own interest, and we created a service to explain its history and symbolism.

For Christians, Jesus is the “Light of the World,” which we represent in the Paschal candle that is newly lit each Easter. During Advent, we light candles on a wreath each week as we anticipate Jesus’ coming at Christmas. Originally, the candles helped count down the dark weeks before the Solstice. Symbolically, we also count the weeks of spiritual darkness until Christ’s birth. The four candles are said to represent hope, peace, joy, and love, while the evergreens represent eternal life.

In Judaism, Chanukah is the “Festival of Lights” that celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle of a one-day supply of lamp oil that somehow lasted eight days. During this holiday, the Jewish community lights candles each night on a menorah, a candle holder with nine candles: one for each day of the miracle, plus an attendant candle to light the others. This year Jews will light their first Chanukah candle on December 22, the day we light the last candle on our Advent Wreath, by coincidence.

Kwanzaa is a newer celebration of pan-African heritage and African-American culture, observed Dec. 26–Jan. 1 and first celebrated in 1966. The name comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” Its traditions include seven candles: one black one representing the black community, three red ones standing for past and current struggles, and three green ones promising hope for the future. Many other religious traditions incorporate light and fire as well. In Hinduism, the god of fire is named Agni, and candles, lamps, and flames are integral to all kinds of worship ceremonies. For Zoroastrians, fire is the ultimate symbol of purity, representing the personified light of God, named Ahura Mazda.

The way that light is used to draw spiritual communities together may inspire us as we pray for unity and peace this Advent. How can the Light of Christ within us burn brightly during these darker days as we anticipate the memorial of Jesus’s birth, and his incarnational presence with us, God with Us, Immanuel?

Last Published: December 5, 2019 5:07 PM
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