Sunday – the “8th day”.
It is the day of Resurrection, and the weekly proclamation to the present world, that a new world, is coming, a day without beginning and end, an eternal day where no sun or moon is needed for the Lamb of God at the center of the Throne is the Light! Sunday begins at sundown on the 7th day: the Sabbath. All over the world Orthodox Christians watch as the sun begins it descent to the west on Saturday, and slowly they cease their work, readying themselves to journey, to become pilgrims once again that evening to the Temple of God where they assemble as Church with the setting of the sun. Thus, much to the surprise of western Christians, worship in the Orthodox church doesn’t “begin” on Sunday morning at 9am, rather it starts at Vespers, evening prayer, on Saturday at twilight: for it’s at the setting of the sun, that we sing in thanksgiving to God for the beginning of a new day. Thus it has always been, and always will be. Since the time of Israel in the Old Testament, the Tabernacle, the Temple and the synagogue, until now. Today, we, like the children of Abraham of yesterday, are the New Israel, and we begin our prayers with the lighting of candles, and the burning of incense, the lifting up of our hands, as the evening sacrifice.
My thoughts these days are captivated by the changing of the seasons, especially with the daily retreat of the sun and light, and the ever advancing onslaught of darkness. In Michigan, the days are getting shorter, and the darkness is increasing, at first almost without perception, but now it’s pitch black as we rise and make our way to work, and in the height of the Winter, it will be completely dark again at 5pm as we make our way home as the snow falls. So as things physically change from Fall to Winter and from Light to Darkness, I want to reflect a few times this coming week on the spiritual change that light brings to us, particularly with the use of candles in the life of Orthodox Christians, and the imagery of Light in our understanding of worship and theology.
The high point, of the evening Vesper Liturgy, which is conducted entirely in a warm, soft, golden, semi-darkness, that gently illumines the faces of the saints and angels written as Icons surrounding us, and on our faces – is the “Prayer of Entrance“, before the reading of Holy Scripture: The rubric says:
Upon completing the Prayers, the Priest carrying the censer (incense) and proceeded by two Altar Boys carrying tapers (candles), leaves the Sanctuary by the North door and stands before the Holy Doors. He then makes the sign of the Cross with his right hand towards the altar and says:
Blessed is the Entrance of the Holy Ones, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
He then censes the Icons on the walls, and the living icons, the people standing in worship. Then we sing with great joy to greet the beginning of a new day. We sing the ancient evening hymn of praise, for we have now crossed over (one might even say we have “passed over“) from one day to the next, from the ending of one day, to the first lights of another. And to aid our spiritual song of praise, is the physical appearing of light in all forms, who join with us in singing. Sweet smelling beeswax candles carry the melody, luminous stars, racing planets and the rising of the moon, join in the harmony, and all these luminaries will guide us through the coming night in anticipation of the sunrise and the resurrection of Christ. This is what the Church and all creation sings:
O gladsome Light of the holy glory, of the Father immortal, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ! In that we now are come unto the setting, of the sun, and behold the Light of evening! We Hymn thee: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God. For meet it is that at all times Thou shouldst be magnified by voices holy! O Son of God – who bestowest life! For which cause all the world doth glorify Thee!
And so it begins! Worship is rhythmic, and sequential. It is never ending. It begins with sundown on Saturday, with the lighting of our lamps and candles, the burning of incense as the lifting up of our prayer, and culminates on Sunday at the Eucharistic Table, where Christ the Light of the World is revealed for all to see, and to consume. The candle of light on Saturday before us, becomes the Light of God on Sunday who comes and dwells within us. The use of candles and light in Orthodoxy are essential to experiencing the fullness of the Faith. We use them in worship and in our homes, and they are a constant reminder that the darkness of this world has been overcome by Christ, who is the light of the world. Candles remind us that in the beginning God said, “Let there be light, and there was light…” and God saw that the Light was good.
Candles are a comfort, a theological and sensual companion that guide us in the dark seasons of our lives, as well as in the heights of high summer joy. Light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Over the next several posts let’s look at the role that light and candles play in Orthodox liturgical life. Their presence in Orthodox homes, and personal prayer. The symbolism and theological significance of candles and light in the Bible. And finally, what does the candle itself have to teach us about life? About death? About illuminating the world in which we live; even if only for a short time.
In all eastern churches candles are lit during the reading of the Gospel not only so as to shed light and dispel the gloom, but also to proclaim one’s joy. – St. Jerome (342-420)