Many faiths share a burning belief in the spiritual

 significance of a brilliantly sacred symbol.

They were the first words uttered by God in the Bible, giving birth to a metaphor for the ages: “Let there be light.”

In thousands of years of religious history, light has become a symbol of divine presence. Whether it’s Hindus or Muslims, Jews or Christians, mystics or “New Agers”, light shines with universal significance. It is a lamp on the path of righteousness, illumination that comes with wisdom and knowledge, a flicker of hope in times of despair and welcoming arms to be embraced at the end of life. “I can’t think of another symbol that’s more alive to the mystery and power of spiritual experience” is how Irving Alan Sparks, chairman of San Diego State University’s religious studies department, puts it. Lance Nelson, a comparative-religion expert at the University of San Diego, echoes that. “Religious experience,” he says, “is the journey from darkness to light.” Now, at a time of year when darkness overtakes daylight, comes a season of lights. And while there are multiple reasons for this season Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa among them — there is something they share. Let there be light.

Religious language is said to be ordinary language used in extraordinary ways; culture incorporated into the sacred. So it is with light. See the light. Shed light on the situation. Light at the end of the tunnel. In a land where it’s quite natural to be afraid of the dark, where the night brings chill and the day brings warmth, light has become a metaphor for goodness. “It’s a symbol that ranks so profound in human life that it relates to everyone,” says Nelson. Think about the last time you stumbled around in the dark. Now think about how you felt when you finally found the light switch. Relief, joy, satisfaction, triumph — the transcendence that is the essence of religion. And at the heart of it, the archetypal symbol, is light.

 “It figures in ritual practice around the world as lamps and candles illuminate sacred sites,” says Sparks. “In meditation it stands for the source of awakening — the blissful enlightenment that arises from contemplation. In metaphysics, it tokens the boundless source of every dawn,” he adds. The examples may be endless:

** Before studying Scripture, Hindus chant a prayer that includes the words “from the darkness, lead me to the light,” says Nelson. Hindus also tend to end their ser-

vices by passing around alight, typically a camphor flame, so that each person may put their hands over it and then move their hands to their eyes, in a symbolic act of taking divine wisdom into their lives. “It’s like a Communion service,” says Nelson, “a Communion of light.”

** Buddhists use light to help symbolize wisdom and compassion. “The concept of enlightenment is the heart of Buddhism,” Nelson adds.

**In Islam, Allah is identified as the source of light. “God is the guardian and the protector of those who believe; He brings them forth from darkness into light,” says the Koran.

** Sikhs believe that every soul has God’s light, which grows dim with sins and bad deeds, says Harohajan Singh Grewal of the Sikh Foundation of San Diego, Calif.

** And in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, there is light, light, and more light.


Inside the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, a lamp hangs from the ceiling in front of the holy ark. This is the Ner Tamid, the eternal light from the days of the desert tabernacle in Exodus, and it symbolizes God’s presence. It’s never to go out,” says Rabbi Jonathan Stein, whose office is steps away from the Ner Tamid.

In the Hebrew Bible, which also is the Christian Old Testament, light often is used to symbolize God’s guidance. In Exodus, Moses first encounters God through the light of a burning bush. In the 119th psalm, God’s word is described as a “lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Jews light candles to mark the beginning and the end of the Sabbath, to observe other holy days and to commemorate those who have died. A shivah candle, which burns for about a week, is lighted after a per- son’s funeral. “That light symbolizes the soul and spirit of a person’s life,” Stein says. A smaller candle, which burns for about 24 hours, is lighted on the anniver-

saries of death. “It symbolizes again the person’s life and spirit and their presence still with us,” he adds.

The eight-day holiday of Hanuk-kah, which begins at sundown Sunday, is sometimes called the festival of lights. Each evening, Jews light an additional candle on the Hanuk-kah menorah, which has nine candles: one for every day of the holiday and a servant candle to light the other eight ones.

According to the Hanukkah story, when the Jewish people reclaimed their Holy Temple from the Syrian-Greek oppressors, there was only enough oil in the sanctu-

ary lamp to last a short time. But the lamp burned miraculously for eight days to allow more oil to be obtained.

To Stein, light is a fitting religious metaphor. Light is nurturing and warming, he offers. “We can’t live without the sun and light. We can’t live, symbolically, without the light of love.~~ But light is more than a metaphor. It’s also a challenge. Jews are supposed to be a light to the nations, which means they are supposed to live out their faith by being moral and ethical examples to others, Stein says. “That has been one of our historical self-under-standings.” So, too, for Christianity.

In many Christian worship services, light is a central symbol, a reminder of the light of Christ. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says in John 8:12. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Each year at the Easter vigil, Catholics watch as the Easter candle leads the procession into the church, providing a light for the faithful and an announcement of Christ’s resur-rection. The Easter candle also is used in baptisms and Funerals as symbols of faith and eternal life.

And some churches remain open even when there are no services so that people may go into them and light candles as symbols of prayers or in commemoration of a loved one. Still, the challenge is for Christians to carry the light into their world, to commence not only in their own immediate circle but also in caring for others daily so it isn’t just light but it’s living pattern adjustment as well,” . “This little light of

 mine, let it shine; let it shine. This little light of mine, ........, let it shine” read the words of a well-known American spiritual. Try it!


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