Monday, September 18, 2006

Hail Gladdening Light!

This morning, for the first time, I really noticed the lit candles on either side of the altar as we prayed the Psalms from the choir. Because it was damp and somewhat dark outside, the large window on the north side of the church let in very little light almost making the flame appear to jump off the candles.

As we discussed the Liturgy of the Hours this morning, the place of the Lucernarium became much clearer in "light" of this morning's epiphany. Each evening (in Egeria's Jerusalem, it was about 4 p. m.) the lamps and candles would be lit, proclaiming Jesus the "light of the world" and echoing the good news of the Paschal vigil that "He is risen, indeed!" Robert Taft, the liturgical scholar, claims that this practice of greeting the evening lamp with prayer and praise, may have originated as a pagan rite and been “baptized” by the Christian community.

The reality is that it is hard for us to latch onto the power of this image because we are surrounded by electric lighting so much of the time. How do I explain to students who cannot conceive of a life without electricity and light just how dark it can really get? Like so many of the images and metaphors central to the Christian narrative we are so far removed from the blaze of a single candle that we look upon the lighting of said candles as "empty ceremonial."

As the lamps were lit and the procession began, the congregation broke forth into the liturgical hymn (Phos hilaron), "O Gracious Light":

O gracious light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praise, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

So, my hope is that as the days grow gradually shorter as we celebrate the coming of the autumnal equinox this week, that I will be able to somehow remember the ancient power of light and the promise it holds out for all those who gather round it. We need the illumination that only you can give, O Lord, to the darkness that threatens to engulf all the world. And so we greet you: "Hail, gladdening light!"