"Would you light my candle?" These are the words Mimi asks Roger in their opening song in the musical Rent. Yes, I watched it this last Sunday -- that is for a different essay. Mimi and Roger have both fallen behind in their rent, and their power has been turned off. Mimi is using a candle for both heat and light in the cold, dark apartment. But her candle goes out and so she asks Roger to relight it. And for the audience, since we experience the dark, stark apartment, the emanating light draws us all in to this intimate moment. Roger and Mimi find themselves living in darkness: the darkness of being diagnosed with HIV in the late eighties, the darkness of addiction (Mimi is currently addicted to drugs), and the darkness of mourning loss (Roger has lost his girlfriend to AIDS -- and who else will he lose?). But a candle on a cold night in December gives Mimi the courage to engage with Roger and even flirt with him a little.
Friends, I know we are weather weary. It has been and is dangerously cold and while the days are getting longer, when it gets dark, it gets really dark. So hey, let’s light a candle or maybe 2 or 5, 8 or 12.
This past December I and two other faculty members were honored to take fifteen Knox College students to Israel-Palestine to study and learn in an experiential way the deep history of the Middle East and to be welcomed to places of practice and the Holy sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What a complicated and beautiful place, all at the same time.
We this time were lucky enough to be there during Chanukah and for the beginning of Advent. Holidays that involve lights in Judaism and Christianity respectively. It would make the already beautiful cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem all the more with the extra lights all over. Let’s learn a little about these traditions.
The ancient and theological story of Chanukah goes something like this: The Hebrews have been dislocated from their temple but now have returned! But they have found it defiled so ritual cleansing they must do. They search for pure olive oil to light the lamps inside, disappointed they could only find one day’s worth. This would not be enough for all they had to do.
Fortunately they found the precious oil sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel- the- prophet so they knew that it was pure. What could the faithful do but use it, and use it they did, but then there was enough for the next day and the next and the next, enough for eight days and through their crisis. From that time on the people made a covenant to God and took upon themselves a solemn vow to tell others and that from then on there would be a festival of lights of eight days of joy and honor.
And today Hanukkah is observed worldwide for eight nights and days, which may occur at any time from late November to late December. The festival of lights is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called the Shamash (the "attendant"). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the Shamash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the festival.
Advent is celebrated in western Christianity. It begins four weeks prior to Christmas Eve. The idea of Advent is a time of preparation with a focus each week. The first week Peace, the second Hope, the third Joy, and the fourth Love. Culminating on Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit and on Christmas Day you have a wreath full of 5 candles. So in western Illinois it is very common for us to see Advent wreaths with the five symbolic candles in our local churches from last week of November to December 25.
Once again I am confounded by the wisdom of our ancient ancestors. They too had to live in darkness so to cope they celebrated their faith by lighting the dark world with candles and lights. They coped by telling each other stories of faith. In the Jewish tradition God had been faithful to the Hebrews and gave oil to light their way. And in the Christian story the faithful lit candles to prepare for the light of the world. We in these times can choose to do the same. We can light candles to brighten up our living spaces and we can be a light for others.
We as a country just experienced the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history. And I’ve got to tell you, some mornings and afternoons it would be really hard to hear the stories on TSPR of hardworking people who are not political but rather public servants, caught up in someone else’s argument. Every day we would hear stories of folks wondering if they were going to stay in their homes, others wondering where they were going to get their next meal, and still others putting off medical bills.
But then lights shone! We heard about the man in D.C. who opened up his restaurant and anyone who had a federal I.D. badge could eat for free. The T.S.A. union leader who got thousands of gift cards donated to him from his brothers and sisters from other unions, and banks offering the gift of time for people to pay their mortgages. And we heard about a dad who was trying to figure out how give his son a party. Radio listeners reached out to him and gave him the best party ever.
This may feel like the darkest times ever, but friends we have a choice to make. We can be the light to a hurting world. Let’s show kindness to one another. Let’s be compassionate with one another. Let’s together seek justice in love. Our winter is not over so I think we will have concrete opportunities to shine our lights.
Like Mimi says, “We could light the candle.” So together let us!
Reverend Dr. Monica Corsaro is a United Methodist clergy from Galesburg.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.