Friday, June 6, 2014

The Meaning of the Light

We're coming up on Pentecost Sunday, and I am thinking of light.

More specifically, I am thinking of a particular light (or is it fire?) -- the light coming from the Paschal candle, the large festival candle that we light the seven Sundays of Easter up through Pentecost.

On Sunday, we will light the Paschal Candle one last time.  Then we will not light it again (except for funerals and baptisms) until we light the new fire in the darkness before Easter morning.

What does it mean?  Do we notice the light of the small fire while it is present?  Do we notice its absence in the sanctuary during the rest of the year?  I wonder.

We used to extinguish the candle on "Ascension Sunday", when Jesus meets his disciples on the mountain one last time.  He gives them instructions.  He tells them to wait for the Spirit.  And then he ascends.  He goes up.  He disappears from their sight.  And in that moment when Jesus disappears from their sight, we paused for a moment, and we extinguished the paschal candle.  The flame, like Jesus, disappeared.  And just like the disciples, now we do not see Jesus any more.  For forty days after his resurrection, he appeared to them, talked to them, taught them, showed them his hands.  And then… he disappeared.

Is that what it means, then?  The light of this candle?  It means the visible presence of the resurrected Jesus. We light it on Easter, and for seven Sundays afterwards.  But after Pentecost, we don't light it any more.  Because Jesus doesn't appear to us.

The light is the flame of his life.  Is that it?  But why do we only light it for seven Sundays of the year?  Sometimes I wonder.

I arrived at my first parish in the middle of the summer.  One of the first questions I was asked, at the little country church, was "When do we stop lighting the candle?"  The instructions they read said that they were supposed to light it through Pentecost, and as far as they could tell, it was still Pentecost.   It was mid-July, and they were still lighting the candle every Sunday.

Was that so wrong?

Anyway, we don't extinguish the candle when Jesus ascends any more.  We keep it lit until Pentecost.  We keep it lit until the tongues of fire dance on the disciples heads.  But then we stop.

What does it mean?  What does it mean that we light the candle, but then we stop lighting it?  Do we notice its presence, and do we notice its absence?  Perhaps if there were more darkness, the light of the candle, the fire that dances for seven Sundays up until today, would stand out more.

Sometimes I do wish we could light it all the time.  Why not?  But there is something necessary about lighting a candle for a time, and then not lighting it again.  There is something true about it, too.  The light does shine in the darkness, but we do not always notice it.  The light does shine in the darkness, but there are times when Jesus feels absent to us.

As for me, I wish we would notice.  I wish we were more able to notice the small things, the light coming from the single candle, and how suddenly, after today, there will no longer be a visible flame.  But there's something else too, something else.

I wish we would notice the presence…. the presence of the flame, the flame dancing in each and every one of us, every broken bruised one of us, bearing the light of His life, now.  After Pentecost, I pray that we will notice that the light still shines.  Only now, the light shines in us, bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, failures and successes, God's only plan for spreading of love and grace and freedom and hope in the world.

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