“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
-John 1:1-5 (NIV)
The last two months, light has been on my mind a lot. There’s a reason that it has been a significant symbol for humanity throughout the ages, whether it represents goodness, faith, knowledge, life, or something else entirely. There is an undeniable mystical and alluring quality to flames, from a tiny candle to a warming bonfire. It gives us hope and helps us see. Even a seemingly tiny amount of light can make a huge difference in a dark room. If you have somehow forgotten this, I encourage you to find a space without any windows and then light a candle in the center to see how far the light can reach.
When I was a middle school student in youth group, our pastor would light a “Christ candle” at the beginning of each teaching time to remind us that Christ is always with us. At our own campus ministry at UC Davis, The Belfry, the Christ candle in the chapel always stays lit regardless of whether someone is present. I have found comfort and solitude there when I needed to sit in my feelings without anyone around. When you live with six other people, it can sometimes be exasperating to find a place indoors to be alone. That place for me has become that chapel. Alone. With the presence of Christ, that is.
All too often the darkest and brightest moments of our lives happen near the same time. This has certainly been true for me lately, as I have been so grateful for my time in LEVN and all the experiences I have had so far, but have, at the same time, been coming to terms with the death of a friend back home. It is one thing to experience the death of a loved one when you are close by and able to say goodbye; it is a different process to be 2,000 miles away both from the person who died and the community who is grieving. When I found out she was likely not going to make it through the night, I didn’t know how to handle it. So I sought shelter in the Belfry, the darkness, and that one candle.
She was one of the most loving people I have ever known. She shared her kind heart and good humor with all she encountered. She was young and vibrant and hardworking and so real. She meant a great deal to many people – both those to whom she had ministered and those who called her a dear friend.
How could someone who had been so alive, be dead?
How could someone, who was a light for so many, suddenly not be in her own body?
These impossible questions linger in my mind.
She died on October 30th. And in the world’s horrible/divine timing, we would be celebrating Dia de los Muertos two days later. One of the wonderful (light-emitting) experiences I have had in LEVN is living with people from such a variety of backgrounds. Our housemate, Leo, is Mexican and helped us have a legit Day of the Dead altar in The Belfry. I had been anticipating this for a few weeks; the celebration aspect of this tradition excited me.
Then October 30th happened. And I started to get anxious.
Would I be able to handle participating in our Dia de los Muertos-Reformation Day-All Saints Day festivities? Would everything be too fresh? Would lighting candles for my friend and others I have known be helpful or just all too much?
I had to risk it anyway. The potential healing outweighed the potential aggravation of grief.
But the experience of contributing to the altar, lighting candles during our service with the UC Davis students, and observing the items afterward alone (alone, with the presence of Christ) exceeded any expectations I had for a meaningful experience. I cannot explain what happened. But the images were raw and the lights were overpowering and I was devastated and OK all at once.
I had actually planned to video-chat with a friend—my past youth pastor who had lit the Christ candle for me so many years ago—that night. But I told her I needed to reschedule and sent her a photo of the altar. She understood.
A few weeks ago I had the incredible opportunity to attend a Service of Remembrance for LGBT people who had been murdered due to their identity or perceived identity that was sponsored by my placement site, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I walked in and noticed that the altar up front had candles that were to be lit during the service. This was not unusual, but what was unexpectedly emotionally impactful for me (someone raised in a non-LGBT-affirming church tradition) was that the colors of the individual candles together created a rainbow. Watching people light each candle while others read passages from different faiths and cultures – all focusing on love and connection—was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. It was both a sorrowful reflection and an ecstatic celebration of the diversity of God’s creation. Light piercing the vast darkness. Expressions of grief and delight co-existing and overlapping and somehow creating music.
I write about these experiences not to provide answers or establish one clear point but rather to wade around in the mystery for a while. I grew up in a tradition of children’s worship called Godly Play, which engages children in the presence of God through a unique mode of storytelling. This program invites them (and us, as adults) to imagine what these pivotal stories of the church might mean. There is time set aside to wonder freely out loud. Coming to distinct conclusions or reciting back a “moral” are hardly the point.
One central theme of Godly Play is The Light. The storyteller talks about how Jesus said, “I am the light” and that “those who love the light can become one with the light.” She lights a Christ candle and proceeds to light a candle from that original candle for each child in the room.
“I wonder how so much light could be given away and the Light still be the same?”
The group enjoys the light for a while. The storyteller then ends the story by explaining that, when the light is changed, it can be in many places at once. She snuffs out the candles one by one and encourages the children to watch how the light changes as the smoke fills the room.
The night that I sat before the Dia de los Muertos altar, I knew that before I could go back to the LEVN house, I would have to put out all the candles. (At the end of the day, even within the most sacred of rituals, safety is first). At first, I was sad at the prospect of all the little lights going away, when the candles represented someone I was not yet ready to let go of. But the candle snuffer propped against the wall reminded me of the story of The Light. And I was suddenly interested to see how the smoke would gradually disseminate throughout the room.
“The Light that was just in one place at one time is in all places at all times…So the Light can be everywhere in this room and even in other places…”
Although I was just beginning the grieving process in some ways, it was time to rest for the night, and I was surprised to find myself ready for the light to change.
Somehow it became even more mysterious than it was when it was burning.
Thanks be to God.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral