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Menorah at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York CityHallo again to all.

Our Prayer Book calendar's liturgical roots—and some of its branches today—have a special relationship with light, rooted in the seasonal changes of parts of the northern hemisphere. As the shadows lengthen earlier each day, we begin and end our days without sunlight. We learn in our approach to Christmas to wait for that 'gracious light, Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father's glory shone' not only through spiritual darkness but also in the real absence of visible light. There is cosmic-liturgical-biological poetry in these weeks to come, called Advent, when our focus points clearly to the prophetic tradition and its religious fruition.

Soon our friends of an older covenant will keep the lovely holiday—also a winter-time celebration of the triumph of light over dark—whose name we've never been certain how to spell. Whether it's Hanukkah, Chanukah or Khanike, it falls fairly low in the traditional hierarchy of Jewish observances. We've never been quite sure about why it wasn't brought into Christianity in the great sifting process of the first century that resulted in the separation of church and synagogue. One of the less well-known features of the holiday is that the lights—oil or candles as occasion provides—may not be used for illumination like normal household light sources. One cannot read or work by them; the observant Jew may only sing, pray, rejoice, and delight in their glow. These flames, like saints and angels, have a single purpose: in this case it is to publish the miracle that accompanied the restoration of worship in the Second Temple following its profanation by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

The rationale given for this careful distinction about candlelight is that using the miraculous flames for any purpose other than re-presenting the miracle—in short using them at all—dilutes the commemoration. An ancient text that accompanies menorah-lighting explains this to participants:

During all eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred, neither is it permitted us to make any profane use of them, but only to look at them in order that we may give thanks unto thy name for thy miracles, thy deliverances and thy wonders..

It's no exaggeration to say that Anglicanism has long had its own ambivalent relationship with wax. Eamon Duffy has shown in several monumental books that English Christians before and during the reformation spent extraordinary amounts of money on wax for illumination at their religious ceremonies. The chandlers and beekeepers were no doubt in a state of dejection when candles became effectively illegal during more protestant stages of Anglicanism in the next centuries. As recently as the 1890s, the saintly Edward King of Lincoln was brought up on legal charges related to the use of candles for purposes other than bare illumination. King and his spiritual children prevailed, and we are unaware of any expression of Anglican life today in which the use of altar candles would be considered as liturgically offensive as it was just over a century ago.

The classical protestant Anglican approach to candlelight has been the opposite of the traditional Jewish approach. At Hanukkah, candles may be used only for mystical purposes, and in a former Anglican attitude, candles may be used only for utilitarian purposes. We are very glad indeed to live in a time when the congealed labour of bees and their keepers can be brought together on our altars to enliven and brighten our worship. We can say in fair confidence that Anglicans have been wrong on this count, and that we still have something to learn about it from our elder siblings in faith.

For all our focus in recent decades on thinking and talking about sex, we wonder if we might not do well to become students of wax à la mode juive for a while.

The candle does not hold back in its gift of self: it gives everything 'with gladness and singleness of heart' to poke holes in darkness. The wax-life is the life we have seen saints live, pouring out its energy gently at one point for no worldly purpose. It publishes miracles, shows us the way forward, rising upward in spark to draw our attention to God.

And yet all religious faith, our Christian faith included, inflames the human passions to good or ill. The stark alternative to wax-life is ultimately a life lived only for itself, Thanatos-driven, fear-impelled. The difference between the two is the difference between the piercing, cleansing Infant Light of Bethlehem and the darks-spreading destruction wrought this week in Mumbai by different kinds of sparks.

We know we must try to be like candles, and that you will, too. The Church year will help us to move forward through Advent and Christmas to a time when

The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.
Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God!

See you next week.

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Last updated: 30 November 2008

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