I don't think it is a coincidence that during this season of short, dark days, candles and lights are important elements in winter celebrations around the world. The earliest winter solstice ceremonies involved the use of fire because people in ancient times feared that the failing light would not return unless humans intervened with ceremony and celebration. As new religions were introduced to humanity, fire continued to be an important part of many of their holidays.
Today, Muslim Iranians still celebrate Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice celebration that originated with the ancient religion of Mithraism. The Mithraists believed that the winter solstice was the night that Mithra, Persian god of light and truth, was born to a virgin mother. After this longest night of the year, the daily increase in sunlight symbolized the triumph of the sun god over the powers of darkness.
The celebration of Hanukah commemorates the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. Hanukah is called the Festival of Lights, which Jewish families celebrate by lighting a candle for each of the eight days that comprise the Hanukkah celebration.
The advent of Christmas is observed by many Christians by lighting a candle on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. These candles symbolize hope, love, faith, and joy. The white candle in the center of the circle is lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the birth of the Christ Child. The wise men, astrologers from Persia, found the baby Jesus by following the light of a great star.
Of all the symbols and metaphors attributed to the Divine, Light is the one found most frequently throughout the religious scriptures and spiritual beliefs of humanity. Anyone who is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that they are full of references to Light and Fire, starting at the very beginning:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4)
Light is the very first thing that God created from the “formless void” of the heavens and the earth. The author of Genesis does not specify the sun as the source of this light. The sun and the stars were not created until the fourth day! This discrepancy may just be the understanding of the author’s primitive mind. Or is it possible that light actually exists in the universe apart from the sun, the moon, and the stars?
I learned from reading The Akashic Light: Religion’s Common Thread by T. Lee Baumann, M.D., that British physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated in the 1800’s that “visible light was merely one small portion of the vast electromagnetic spectrum.” In 1888, Heinrich Hertz discovered the existence of radio waves, and since then scientists have discovered X-rays, microwaves, infra-red, ultraviolet and gamma rays — all invisible forms of electromagnetic radiation. Baumann says: “. . . even in the deepest, darkest vacuum of space, there are over 400 million photons of non-visible light per cubic meter.” This non-visible light may or may not be the original light that the author of Genesis was referring to. But then, our Creator God is invisible to the human eye, just as are these various forms of light.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him (Moses) in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, and yet it was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)
Moses is an exception to the “rule” that human beings cannot see Divine Light. Notice that it was not God, but an angel of the Lord who appeared in the burning bush. But in Exodus 3:4 we read:
“. . . the LORD saw that he had gone over to look,” and “God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’”
Moses lived in constant communion with God, obedient to God’s will. I am guessing that he spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation in order to maintain this relationship. After all, God says: “Be still and know that I am God.” Moses must have known how to still the chatter in his own mind so that he could hear God’s voice. Perhaps the years spent in meditation had nurtured his clairvoyant abilities so that he could see the light of God that is invisible to other people.
These are just two of the many references to Divine Light in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita, holy book of Hinduism, also contains many references to Divine Light. One of the most beautiful passages is as follows:
The Blessed One said: . . .
I am light in the moon and sun . . .
And brilliance in fire am I,
Life in all beings,
And austerity in ascetics am I. (Bhagavad Gita: VII:8-9)
Of a thousand suns in the sky
if suddenly should burst forth
The light, it would be like
unto the light of that exalted one . . .
A mass of radiance, glowing on all sides,
I see Thee, hard to look at, on every side
With the glory of flaming fire and sun, immeasurable.
I see Thee, whose face is flaming fire,
Burning this whole universe with Thy radiance. (Bhagavad Gita: XI:12-19)
Surely the author of these scriptures had personally experienced the radiant light of God, just as Moses had. In a meditative state, he could have seen the radiance of the non-visible photons that fill the universe.
The Buddhists of ancient times knew about the Divine Light that we meet when we leave our physical bodies; the one that is encountered by veterans of the Near-Death Experience. A Tibetan Buddhist lama reads from The Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying or recently deceased person. This is a section of that reading:
Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it.
Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha.
Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia sometime between 1500 and 600 B.C.E. Zoroastrians believe in a single god: Ahura Mazda, the “Spirit of Light and Good.” The religious rituals of Zoroastrianism are performed before sacred fires, which represent God. The wise men who followed the light of a bright star to find the child Jesus, are widely believed to have been Zoroastrian priests and astronomers.
The child Jesus grew up to be Jesus the Christ, who said to his followers: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34)
Jesus also said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-17)
We are now in the midst of a cold, dark winter – the season when we are in the most need of warmth and light! In the dark of winter, we like to light candles and decorate with strings of electric lights, to brighten the early evenings. And the long winter nights provide more opportunities to spend time going within to seek the inner light. When seen with our spiritual eyes, this inner light will shine so brightly that our bodies will be full of light. Let us radiate our light out into the world, to bring peace and goodwill to all of Creation.