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Vol II No. 5

A Light That Shineth in A Dark Place

by The Very Revd Dr William Willoughby III, EdD

Imagine for a minute that you have gone into an ancient house of worship, occupied by a Christian community for time immemorial. It is early in the morning; the lights have not been turned on and your eyes have not adjusted to the dim light. As you look towards the chief altar one thing stands out – the shining light of the sanctuary lamp. 2 Peter 1:19 speaks of the mystery of the revelation of God as ‘a light that shineth in a dark place.’ As we contemplate this votive witness of the people of God to the eternal presence of God, we might consider three things: the lamp gives witness to the abiding life of God – or to use the proper theological expression – the transcendent life of God; it also gives witness to the abiding love of God or the love of God immanent in His creation; furthermore it bears witness to the abiding purpose of God revealed in the wonder of the Incarnation of our Lord, Christ Jesus. The ever-burning sanctuary lamp tells us of an abiding life and an abiding love; a love that is behind our love, a life that gives us life. 

In the beginning, God – the central message of the sanctuary lamp – reminds us of our calling as Christians to bear witness and give glory to the reality of this truth. It shines in the face of the all too pervasive self-centered thinking that human life is the limit of life. The light of that lamp calls us to bear witness with all that we are to the truth that behind human life there is something better than fate or a random force. This vocation is specifically recognized at baptism when the priest hands the newly baptized a candle lit from the pascal candle and says, ‘Receive the light of Christ as a sign that you have passed from darkness into light. Shine as His light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’’ 

In many churches there are other votive lights and each in its way bears witness to a different aspect of the Christian truth about life and the light available to us through Jesus Christ. The votive candles at various shrines remind us that each one of us is a member of the Body of Christ because of the work and witness of someone else. Including those we don’t know as well as those, we know by association or the historic witness of legend and story. These lights also bear witness to the communion of saints that surround us in all our endeavors, and they lend aid to the vision articulated at every eucharist when the priest says, ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name’.

In addition to the votive lights at the shrines, banks of seven-day candles and ten-hour candles in various places around the building bear witness to the mutual dependence and interrelatedness of the church militant. They stand in vigil to the prayers and thanksgivings that have been offered in the building that houses each of our portions of the church here and now. They encourage us in our prayers and invite many of us to rely on the power of prayer even when it seems impossible. They also remind us to give thanks for the many blessings sent our way. In this season of light may we all grow in the knowledge and love of the true light and encourage each other to bring the message of God’s love to a hungry world.