“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In the Christian tradition, light is a symbol of God. It has come to represent hope in the face of despair and clarity in the face of confusion. However, what is it about light that is so captivating to humans? From contraband twinkly lights in dorm rooms, to bonfires on the beach, to flickering candlelit dinners, people are continually enchanted by light.
Certainly, light’s appeal can be partially attributed to biology— sunlight provides heat, vitamin D, and energy to grow plants. In studies, exposure to light has been seen to decrease one’s risk of depression and anxiety. Light is also practical. Without it, humans would eternally be stubbing their toes on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Living in Boston, one becomes especially grateful for light as the days become shorter and the nights become colder.
However, light holds special significance during the Christmas season, in both theological and secular contexts. Just last night, hundreds of students gathered on O’Neill Plaza for the University’s annual Christmas tree lighting. Shimmering strands of lights illuminate the bushes of houses along the now aptly named Beacon Street. Store fronts in New York City employ flashy window displays to attract potential holiday shoppers. And, next to Bapst Library, floodlights illuminate Boston College’s nativity scene.
Historically, light has been tied to several Christmas celebrations. The Feast of Saint Lucy, whose very name means ‘light,’ is observed on December 13 during the midst of Advent. A martyr, Saint Lucy is famous for her works of charity. As a young girl, she secretly delivered food to persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. Lucy wore candles on her head, similar to a miner’s headlamp, in order to free up her hands while handing out bread. In Scandinavian countries, it became tradition for girls to wear a wreath of candles on their heads to honor the legacy of Lucy. The feast day emphasizes the importance of charity to the poor and hope for the coming of Christmas.
To the relief of hairdressers everywhere, the tradition of the candle crown has not been adopted in the United States. Instead, most Catholics observe the season of Advent through the lighting of an Advent wreath. Each candle of the wreath marks a different stage of preparation for the approaching feast of Christmas. The four candles — three purple and one pink — represent “prophecy, love, joy, and peace.” The third candle is pink to mark the midway point of the season, a Catholic halftime of sorts. As a whole, the wreath represents the “light of Christ” coming into the world.
Just as light is a symbol for hope, so, too, is Advent. It is a season of hopeful anticipation of the coming of Jesus. Even in the face of darkness, despair, and final exams, love ultimately triumphs above all. This is why light is so prevalent in the Advent season. To be “light” in the lives of others is to follow in the example of Saint Lucy — to perform acts of love and charity for others.