The Symbolism of Light in Advent

We don’t want to be so familiar with Christmas that it becomes foreign. The fulcrum of all of history rests on this singular event when God, who has no beginning or end, began.


By Noelle Mering

To consider even briefly the rich symbolism of light is to arrive at varied but overlapping possibilities: the hope-filled dawn, the illumination of space and intellect, the revelation of a light bulb moment, the spring-sun inducing life and rebirth of earth and spirit, the exposure in the cold light of day of what had been cloaked in the night. Hope, life, illumination, clarity, revelation...analogical light references populate poetry and scripture, songs and idioms. With such rich meaning it’s no wonder we mark special times in life with light: birthday candles, fireworks, candlelit processions, and dinner parties.

Advent especially is marked with symbols of light and darkness: Advent candles, Christmas tree lights, lights illuminating windows at night. During this liturgical season we also have the feasts of St. Lucy, the patron saint of light, followed immediately by St. John of the Cross, whose devotion was purified of all consolation in the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.

Candles can symbolize for us the dual nature of Christ: the earthy wax his bodily or human nature, the airy and ethereal flame his spirit or divine nature.

The symbolism of daylight is particularly fitting for Advent and Christmas. The shorter days of winter are symbolic of darkness, sin, sleep, even death itself. The birth of the savior comes at the time that the days are just beginning to get longer; we’re coming out of darkness into light. 

We’re quite literally lost without light. On a recent camping trip this point was driven home to me on the first night when I left the campfire to go to the restroom without a flashlight. My confidence waned as I walked further from the campsite. Trying to recreate the path in mind from memory and with arms outstretched as if in a child’s game, I banged shins into logs, turned this way and that, and realized quickly that not only could I not see the bathroom, I could no longer even see our campsite. After a bit of this a little light beam and familiar voices approached. Relieved, I let friends escort me the rest of the way.

To say that light is important is to say something obvious. But sometimes obvious things become profound when we’re forced to contend with their absence. 

Light not only helps us to see what’s really there, but it also shows us where to go. Beyond bringing knowledge or awareness, it beckons us, engaging our will almost instinctively. We see, now we must move.

In a way, the complete loss of it is better than partial loss because it forces us to come to terms with our need. We’ve all had the experience of living for a time in dim lighting without really noticing. One of several bathroom light bulbs burns out and four lazy months later we replace it and wonder how we lived those months in such a compromised way.

The shallowness of our vision becomes obvious in the secularization and materialism we see in our culture and in ourselves during Advent, and it’s a common refrain to bemoan it. Christmas is everywhere and nowhere all at once. Perhaps the deprivation of the central meaning of Christmas causes an over-emphasis on the perimeter. This is sad, but seen in a supernatural light we might take hope in the fact that most people, Christian or not, still long for Christmas. Maybe what they long for is tradition, family, togetherness, ritual. Underneath this lies a deep yearning for eternity, for communion. Tradition and ritual point to eternity, and family and togetherness point to a desire for communion. These longings can only be perfected in our life with God.

Even people who don’t like Christmas don’t like it because they’re grieving the loss of a good. Maybe they’re lonely, or their family has broken up, or a loved one has died. Deep loss becomes sharpened when forced into proximity with deep joy.

We don’t want to be so familiar with Christmas that it becomes foreign. The fulcrum of all of history rests on this singular event when God, who has no beginning or end, began. He entered into our time and our space to die ignominiously and rise gloriously, so that we might one day be raised with him. For his entrance he chose an unknown humble maiden. He made her his mom and then he made her our Queen. As an Akathist hymn says: “Hail, O Star who manifest the Sun!”

This Advent let’s allow the light of this star and this sun to help us to see more clearly, so that by seeing we might know where to go and whom to follow. In following him more closely we will grow in resolve, in turning to him more intimately we will grow in love. Love by nature is meant to be shared. Like a light coming on the darkness it isn’t contained but rather spreads and beckons others to come.

Far from distancing ourselves from the reality around us or separating us into some sort of celestial other-world, closeness with God paradoxically helps us to become more aware of reality, not less. While it’s a real sadness that as a culture we keep trying to find communion and eternity at the mall and in the shadows, the desire is still undeniable and humanly unsatisfiable. Those two realities can work in concert to lead us to the light of Christ where we will wonder in hindsight how we ever made do with the gloom.