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 ...1