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Go Into the Lights

Light in darkness let us sing,

brightness now returning,

House of prayer once dark and cold

now with candles burning.

 

When the lamp seemed empty

and its fire forever spent,

Then the flame sprang up anew

for our hearts’ deep yearning.

—Lawrence Rosenwald, “Maoz Tzur”

St. Lucia was an Italian girl, but she’s made a big hit with the Swedes.

St. Lucia festivals, held during the darkest days of December, feature a procession of white-robed, red-ribbon-waisted girls all singing the haunting “Santa Lucia” song. The oldest girl gets to wear a crown of burning candles on her head and she carries a plate full of saffron buns for the family to eat.

It’s all very pretty, but also somehow very moving. One year my oldest daughter was a St. Lucia and I can still see her dark, serious eyes beneath the heavy crown of candles.

The real St. Lucy didn’t have it so easy. As a part of her martyrdom her eyes were gouged out. The folklore that grew up around her says that she returned from death carrying her eyes on a plate.

For the Swedes she is celebrated as the mythical figure who brings light into deepest darkness. Of course, the Swedes have domesticated her, turning her into a caring daughter bearing breakfast treats and bringing coffee.

But if you think about it, there is still something a little dangerous about a crown of fire on a young girl’s head. And the saffron buns she presents—they are really representations of Lucia’s eyes, the assurance that vision is still possible, even in the darkness.

The Swedes aren’t the only ones who seem concerned about seeing through the darkness. Nature is at its extreme now.

I’m convinced that one of the ways we confront these last dark days of December is in personal or religious rituals that involve light. Light is central to both the Jewish and Christian December holidays—in the menorah and the Advent wreath. Even the gaudiest displays of holiday lights you see driving down your street seem to me to be a part of the atavistic and ritualized seeking for illumination. We are trying to look through the darkness for what lies ahead. And limited vision is better than none at all.

A couple of weeks ago at the evening meditation service at the church I serve, we sat in silence and almost total darkness. But at the front of the church the Advent wreath was lit and there was a little table filled with 16 white tapers, glowing like a corona.

Outside it had started to snow and the flakes were so dense they looked like the ashes of Pompeii raining down. The wind bullied the building, catching underneath the big overhangs of the roof and making them groan and crack. Then the wind made a noise that for all the world sounded like a giantess’ mournful keening. Nature seemed very big. Our candles seemed very small.

We are entering into the long winter darkness. We are leaving behind a whole year of our lives, never to be called back to us. We are facing an unknown number of days of cold. Spring is far away and there is no way to summon time either forward or backward. We can only sit in the dark unknown and wait.

And yet, there is still the light.

One of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen takes place on Christmas Eve on Lexington Parkway in Old Niskayuna.

Lexington Parkway is a wide suburban boulevard. The houses are well-spaced, probably built by GE scientists and executives in the heyday of the company. But there is nothing to particularly distinguish it from many other streets in older, quiet suburbs like Old Niskayuna.

But on Christmas Eve, around 6 PM neighbors up and down both sides set out luminaria the whole length of the boulevard. There are no other lights to take your eyes away from the luminaria— no blinking, twinkling, gaudy distractions.

As far as you can see there are little candles glowing in paper bags. I don’t know the history of this. I don’t know if some neighbors have to be coerced into setting out the lights or if there is some remarkable consensus that this is a worthwhile thing to do. But by some agreement that astonishes me, neighbors of all variety of religious and cultural and aesthetic orientations have agreed to make a highway of light in the darkness.

It only lasts for an hour or so, but it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen: an unbroken line of muted lights giving both a sense of comfort and of vision.

Early on Christmas Eve night I drive over to the church where, in a little while, there will be a service of candlelight and singing. I go early because I like very much to be there when the building is empty and the smell of pine and the creaking roof is all there is to keep me company.

So when families are beginning to gather together for the evening, I am setting off alone. And when I get to Lexington Parkway, I turn off my headlights. I drive very, very slowly up and down the boulevard.

It is completely silent. Sometimes there will be another car or two, but mostly the street is deserted; people are inside where there is incandescent light and bright sound.

I pass along a silent way fare. I drive up and down a few times, letting my mind be still and wordless as I move along through the light. I never want the moments to end.

But I do have promises to keep. I turn off the boulevard and go the rest of the way to the dark church. There, I will unlock the doors and go inside. Shadows fill the empty hallway.

Soon there will be music. Soon there will be more light. Soon the community will gather.

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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