If someone gives me a candle as a present, I have to admit, I’m not that impressed. ‘You really didn’t know what to get me’, I think. That’s not to say I haven’t had some very pretty candles as gifts, or that I haven’t bought plenty myself. Who can resist some of the market hall deals at Ikea? But in the UK today, and I guess most of the developed world, candles are knick knacks. Trivial and inoffensive unless you carelessly start a fire with one, leading many landlords to prohibit candles altogether.
But it was not ever thus. Travelling to Iceland a few years back I heard how candles were considered truly precious in the days before electricity was widespread. Winter daylight hours are so short that far north, and fuel for heat and light was expensive and limited. If the father of the household decided to conserve fuel, people would have to sit and live and work in the dark. Imagine doing wool crafts in the dark. Looking after children in the dark. Finding your way around in the dark.
Having a candle meant that you could have light when you really wanted or needed it. If you were knitting and dropped some stitches, a brief time with the candle could enable you to spot your mistakes and put them right. If your child was convinced there was a monster in their bed, the candle could show them that there was nothing there. If you needed to find your way somewhere unknown, a candle could light your way. Even when it wasn’t lit, a candle meant hope, just from the knowledge that you could have light if you needed it.
The symbol of a candle as hope must be why it is used by organisations including Amnesty International. The saying “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” was used by Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International in 1961, although it is also said to be a Chinese proverb. One of the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus was ‘I am the light of the world’. As a metaphor, there are many interpretations of this statement, although Jesus’ immediate connection was how if we follow Him we do not have to walk in darkness. I’d also argue that Jesus can give us hope and help us deal with our fears and our mistakes, just like the candle in old Iceland.
Jesus also told His followers that we are the light of the world. We are supposed to share the light we have and not hide it, and show people God’s goodness. When this all feels too daunting I like to think of the displays of many small votive tea lights in some churches. Maybe I’m not much on my own, but if I get together with lots of other little lights, we can make a difference. Even one small, fading candle can be used to light many others. Even after one candle has burnt out, another that was lit from it can still be burning and pass on light to others. What am I to do with this little light of mine? Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.