For those of you not in the “know,” Candlemas is that time in the church year (for some of us) where we haul out all the candles in the church (or at least a representative sampling) and bless them. My colleague calls it a “hinge day,” marking the midpoint between the Winter’s Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
So we haul out the candles and we bless them to acknowledge the Christ as being the “light of the world.” And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t sit in solemn silence in the presence of a candle illuminating a darkened room. There’s something deeply True about doing that.
It’s kind of like how many of us will burn greens right after Christmas, pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice, and bless houses at Epiphany.
All of these rites, these rituals, help us to breathe deeply with history, with the Earth’s movement, and with the mystery that connects us to one another and to the Divine. It’s why I bow toward the cross as it comes into my midst: I want to honor in my body the mystery of salvation.
But a lot of places don’t do this. Won’t do this. Indeed, a lot of places think these acts are superfluous at best and superstitious at worst.
I don’t bless candles because I think they must be blessed. I bless them because, in doing so, I acknowledge that light will overcome darkness. Always. And that deserves blessing.
I don’t pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice because I think that evil resides in the shadows and I must pray it away. No. I know evil resides in the shadows. Hence why we don’t tell our secrets…many times they’re too full of evil, guilt, or shame to expose to the light. So I pray late into the night to acknowledge that, from that point on, it will get lighter and lighter each day as we lean toward Spring.
And then, perhaps, I can allow a little light to shine more and more on my secrets.
And all of these practices help to connect me with a mystery of life and salvation greater than myself. It’s kind of like our big harvest festival, Thanksgiving. Ever since our forbears figured out that a dead seed will spring from the Earth, a mix between careful tending and damn luck, they’ve acknowledged that to live, and to breathe, and to eat is a gift.
All of it, gift.
And part of living into that gift is acknowledging that there are moments in life that are just bigger than us…and that should be ritualized. Communally ritualized.
But so much of modern faith is all brain or all heart and no mystery (unless we’re expected to believe that Jonah mysteriously wasn’t dissolved by stomach acid).
We just feel it’s true. We assent to mental tenets (or reject them).
And yet, deep love is neither mental nor emotional. It doesn’t make sense to the brain, and is often too fleeting with the heart.
No. Deep love is a mix of the head and the heart and the guts and…and that’s where I find true faith to reside, too.
Timothy Keller and Christopher Hitchens attempt to rationalize everything (they are in good company). They are the different sides of the same coin. Not everything has an answer.
Likewise, the absolute emotionalism of charismatic and ecstatic communities miss the mark, too, I think. Things aren’t true because they move our emotions; emotions are fleeting. “Mystery” doesn’t mean believing just anything.
No. Things are true because they connect us deeply in the past and far into the future.
Hence why myth is True in a deeper sense then pure history. Hence why rituals are True in a sense deeper than mindless monotony.
A belief system (and, remember, even atheism is a belief system) that attempts to exorcise mystery by finding a formula for everything and explaining everything or, conversely, by necessitating a constant emotional response is a faith that has lost something.
I think it’s lost depth. My atheism was shallow. As was my previous faith. And while I don’t claim that I’ve reached some sort of amazing depth in my faith life now, it’s certainly more connected then anything I’ve practiced before.
Rituals don’t “save” me.
I don’t do them to earn anything. Rather, they do exactly what “religion” claims to do: they reconnect me. Re-ligio comes from the same root as “ligament.” It reconnects us.
Because we have a way of disconnecting from life. But, too often, even religion fails to live up to it’s name these days.
So, this Sunday, haul out some candles. Give thanks for the light.