I recently travelled to New York City and the surrounding area with my youngest son, Andrew. While there, I was struck again and again by the presence of light.
There were, of course, some big, obvious lights. The towering, almost oppressive lights of Times Square, for instance. Or the beautiful sparkle of lights that make up the skyline of Manhattan.
There were iconic symbols of light. The Statue of Liberty’s flame, for example, which has served as a beacon to welcome countless millions to the shores of this country. Or the spire atop One World Trade Center, built in the aftermath of the devastating events of 9/11 to serve as the main building of the new World Trade Complex.
Or there was the light that flowed in through the stained-glass windows of St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s Cathedral—two historic and impressive and beautiful churches in Manhattan.
But more than any of these, I think the lights that struck me most were much smaller. Each of them just a candle, actually.
One of them is a candle that hangs above a pew in the famous Cadet Chapel at West Point. The candle symbolically reserves that pew for those lost or missing in action.
The other was a candle lit at the base of a statue in Jersey City, New Jersey—just across the Hudson from Lower Manhattan. The statue memorializes a massacre of Polish officials and leaders by Soviet troops in Katyn, Poland in 1940, and now also includes a plaque commemorating all the victims of the 9/11 attack.
I suppose part of what struck me about these last two was their size. One was a small candle hanging in the cavernous space of large and impressive chapel. The other was a small flame at the base of a memorial whose background included all of the bright lights of the New York City skyline.
And yet, in each case, my eye was drawn to that small candle and the seemingly trivial and insignificant light it put off. Despite their size, something about those flames said: “Look at me. Here you will find meaning. Here you will find warmth. Here you will find significance.”
Now we’re approaching the time of the year in the church when we anticipate the birth of Jesus. And one of the passages that comes up during this season is from the prologue of the Gospel of John—a Gospel that doesn’t have a birth narrative of Christ.
Instead, in towering, poetic language, John talks about the Word made flesh, and about the coming of the light. And we are reminded in these beautiful verses that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Those two small candles were reminders for me of how even a small amount of light can penetrate the most profound darkness. So, this season, while we appropriately look to the coming of the one who is, as we confess in the Nicene Creed, “God from God” and “Light from Light,” perhaps we might also think about how we, in our own small ways, are reflecting that same light back out into a dark world.
Said differently: You were made to be a candle. So—this time of year especially—let your light shine.