Seemingly within minutes of the massacre in Paris, people gathered at one place or another, in Paris and in cities across the world. They laid flowers. They prayed. They played “Amazing Grace.” They held hands. They displayed the colors of the French flag. They wept.
They also lit candles.
Lighting candles has become a common public liturgy following terrorist attacks. Even though candles in the West have a distinctly religious aura about them, we find atheists and agnostics lighting them as well. Even in post-Christian, secular France.
If you ask a hundred people why they lit candles these last few days, you are likely to get a hundred answers, none of which should be dismissed. Still, we light candles, as we do so many things at such moments, for reasons that reason does not know. Or better, we light them because, in ways we can’t often articulate or fathom, they harken life’s two great mysteries.
John’s gospel names those mysteries like this: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Glimpsing the Darkness
Candles do not merely shine in the darkness; they help us recognize the darkness of the night. Our fully lit rooms do their best to eliminate all vestiges of darkness. Our eyes are so flooded with light we hardly notice or remember the darkness that hovers over and around us.
Candles, on the other hand, give off only a small and subtle light, whose weak intensity flickering flames are vulnerable to the slightest wisp of wind or breath. Candle light makes us aware of darkness and the threat of deeper darkness should the flame go out. As Anne Frank noted in the face of Nazi horrors, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” As the flame flickers and moves, the surrounding darkness is given shape. The candle doesn’t eliminate the darkness, but it pushes it to the boundary of light, giving us space to reflect.
Among other things, we reflect on the fresh revelation that tragedy brings: Terrorism terrifies because it shows us the slender thread upon which our lives hang, how with breathtaking suddenness and seeming randomness it can end with a literal bang. Most days we can successfully pretend tomorrow belongs to us as much as today. The Paris tragedy startles us out our don’t-worry-be-happy daze, and the flickering light of the candle helps us feel our fragility.
We try to marshal courage. With false bravado we announce, “We will not let the terrorists win!”—by which we mean we will not alter our lifestyles out of fear. Yet we inevitably do. Does anyone remember the days with no airport security lines, when no one checked purses and bags at ball games? We wish it were otherwise, but after each terrorist attack, we institutionalize our fear in new ways.
Thus anxiety penetrates and chills our bones as public sites close in Paris and elsewhere. At venues designed to help us forget about our troubles for a few hours, armed security guards with police patches and shiny guns march us and our handbags through metal detectors.
It’s an exaggeration to say we’ve become a police state, but we’re getting there. And it’s not because government agents watch our every move. Instead it’s because we increasingly agree to police one another. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently urged New Yorkers, “If you see something, say something. That phrase is real. It is powerful.”
Yes indeed. And fearsome. The fear that hyper-security fosters morphs into hate and revenge, driven by the false hope that we can make all this go away with enough might. French President Francois Hollande condemned the attack as an “act of war” and vowed that France “will be merciless toward the barbarians of Islamic State group.” He was no doubt trying to express moral outrage at the heinous murders. And it goes without saying that we are in war and that the guilty should be brought to justice. But one hopes that in the end our justice will not be dark and merciless, turning us into the very barbarians we rightly condemn.
The Light of Hope
Yet candles, as Frank noted, not only define but also defy darkness, which is another reason we instinctively light them.
A Facebook page created after the Paris attacks encouraged readers:
In this day of mourning, facing horror and grief, let's show once more that we are here, standing up, together and united. We need to commemorate the memory of the dead, and send our thoughts and full support to the injured ones and their relatives. As night falls, let us light a candle at our windows. We are not afraid, we are together.
Lighting a lone candle in solidarity with others is one way to defy the darkness. Perhaps it is the best some can do in a world of atomized individuals who connect with others mostly through Facebook and Twitter. But we miss the genius of candles if we stop here.
Candles flickering in darkness seem designed to bring people together. I lived in Mexico City during a time when, because of an electricity shortage, brown outs were scheduled in our part of the city every night for an hour for a couple of weeks. Those nights, we went from a fully lit house with people separated in different rooms reading or whatever, to a home with candles set on the dining room table, around which we gathered to talk and play games, at least for an hour.
Candles are unique in this way. People don’t gather after tragedies with flashlights in hand, nor do they use floodlights to light up these memorials. They leave candles. And they very often light their candle using the flame of another candle. They stand together, weeping with those who weep as the gentle, vulnerable candlelight bathes their face with a warm but certain hope. Candles can create community like no other source of light, with an almost life-giving quality.
The Light that Is Not Overcome
Is not all this a sign of grace?
As Karl Barth reminded us, sin becomes sin fully in the advent, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: “In the light of Jesus Christ the darkness is revealed as such. It is made plain that man is a sinner. It is shown in what his sin consists.” Without Jesus, we have but a vague sense that something has gone wrong with the universe. In Christ, we see the radical chasm that separated God and man, a break brought on by willful human rejection of God’s kind and gracious will for us. From before time, God intended to create a people for himself, to live in the fellowship of freedom and love with him. God with us, and we with him. All the peccadillos and vices we call sins pale in comparison to the deep darkness of our rejection of God and his good will toward us.
But the Light that shines in the darkness and defines its shape is also the Light the darkness cannot overcome. It is the revelation of the Candle, of God’s restoration of the broken covenant, of God’s reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses—this is the light that calms our fears and shows us we are not alone in the universe. For God has saved a people for himself, a people who no longer know the terror of judgment and death, and who regularly gather around the gentle flickering Light to ponder and praise this mysterious grace.
It is said that the West, and France especially, is post-Christian. We Christians often talk about people like this being “far from God.” We imagine that most people remain, at best, indifferent to things religious. But when a terrorist strikes, these same people have the strange habit of gathering in dark places and lighting candles. They each have their reasons for doing so, but I suspect there is also a mystery that draws them, a reason sown into the fabric of their souls, just waiting for the spark of faith to be lit by the grace of a good God.
After we have sufficiently mourned with those who have mourned, in the fellowship of silent suffering, there will come a time to speak. And what we can say to an anxious world, in ways subtle but clear, is this: The candle in which you glimpsed this world’s darkness and felt the stirrings of a mysterious hope—what you hoped for is true and real and contains a deeper mystery than seems possible, that there is indeed a Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome him.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.