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Natural lighting.

For many years we had a family candle on the dining table, lighting it as we blessed our food. Today, as in ancient times, candles remind us of the victory of light over dark, of good over evil--of Christ's victory as the light of the world. The burning flame is always prominent in our churches, and it can be prominent in our homes, too. Children love to take turns lighting candles. And this tradition stays alive as candles are changed to fit the season: harvest colors changing into purple and blue, then into green, red, and white, and into purple again. The candles can be saved just as we save our other seasonal things.

This family tradition is one that I encourage when I meet with families to discuss ways to renew--or to begin, in many cases--religious traditions in the home. This comes very easily to me because of my own family upbringing. I was born at home only yards from the Wabash River in Ohio, the tenth child of 13. The rural Catholic church just down the road gave our faith its particular style. The pastor was a beekeeper and gardener. Our family cleaned the church, rang the bells, and took care of the cemetery. Dad taught at the one-room school. Many evenings as a young child, I walked the woods with the pastor, enjoying rural life.

In that environment, seasons flowed naturally. Easter traditions flowed into May crownings, Rogation Days, and Corpus Christi processions at church, while field work kept us busy during the summer. Harvest was just finished when somber November traditions about death kept our attention, soon giving way to the more joyful Advent and Christmas time.

It was only years later during my theology studies that I discovered that what seemed so natural--and enjoyable--in our Catholic tradition was precisely that: natural. Our Catholic ancestors did not reinvent the wheel or form committees to decide how to celebrate divine mystery in their lives. On the contrary, they often adopted, borrowed, and "baptized" what they were already doing. Before Christian times, people interpreted their lives based on what they sensed most keenly: the life-giving power of the sun and predictable cycles of the moon.

Our ancestors knew how to predict the four key moments of tension and transition between light and dark. They knew when hours of light and dark would be even: 12 of each in spring and fall equinoxes. After the fall equinox, they sensed the power of darkness as the night steadily lengthened and the day got shorter. Then, wonder of wonders, every year like clockwork there came a moment when the nearly 15 hours of darkness was in turn defeated. This was the winter solstice, beginning December 22.

The spring equinox set the annual celebration of the Lord's resurrection, just as it had for the Jewish Passover. To this day in the Roman Catholic Church, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It became the anchor of the church year and set the date for the beginning of Lent. The word Lent itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten or lengthening. The custom of lighting the new Easter fire imitated pagan bonfires in Europe at the spring equinox. Early on, this was condemned by the church but was reinstated by Saint Patrick in response to the Celtic Druid fires.

December 25 was chosen late in the third century to celebrate the nativity of Jesus, relating the light of the world to the winter solstice and the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun. Soon the preparation season of Advent evolved as the beginning of the church year cycle.

It is impossible to return completely to the earthy living of our ancestors. But how can this peek into ancient times be made practical in our families today? In addition to the simple tradition of lighting a family candle, I always encourage families to chart the cycle of the solar year because most of us live in the glare of artificial light. The weather channel and newspapers give the exact times of sunrise and sunset. Look out a window to the west and chart sunset on the wall as fall turns into winter, as darkness increases until the winter solstice and Christmas arrive. Look out a window to the east in late winter and early spring and chart the ever earlier sunrise until Easter.

As we keep track of the sunrise and sunset and feel the dark and light, we will enjoy the mystery of God in our daily lives as Catholics.

By Greg Dues, adjunct professor at Loyola University, New Orleans and author of Catholic Customs and Traditions (1993).
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Title Annotation:reflections on light in ritual and tradition
Author:Dues, Greg
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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