While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. (John 12:36)
On a well-known photograph is immortalized an event that took place 95 years ago, when the Estonian foreign minister Jaan Poska signed the Tartu Peace Treaty. In the forefront is the clear flame of a candle. According descriptions of those present, a candle burned on each side of the table where the leaders of the Estonian and Russian negotiators sat in the first minutes of February 2nd. This occurred despite the fact that the room was brightly lit by electric lighting for the photographers and film-makers who recorded the event.
Did these candles burn on the tables of Jaan Poska and Adolf Joffe only to signify the fact of the festivity and the sanctity of the occasion or was the significance of these candles on Candlemas based on much deeper level – no one any longer knows. We can look at the photograph of the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty and, knowing the importance of the event for the Estonian nation and its freedom, provide the lit candles with a symbolic content and meaning. Perhaps this helps us today understand the extraordinary significance of the moment for the Estonian nation and people, because with the signatory parties’ signatures the War of Independence came to a conclusion and Russia recognized without reservation and for eternity the independence of the Republic of Estonia.
If the Tartu Peace Treaty has been understood to be the birth certificate of the Republic of Estonia, then thinking upon the message of Candlemas today and the meaning of light for the church and Christianity, dare I say, that the candles that burned during the signing of the treaty are to be likened to baptismal candles in terms of their symbolic message. Freedom is an idea that we value as a nation; yet light is that which we focus our eyes upon and which we follow as the people of God.
After a baptism, pastors light the baptismal candle from the altar candle and present the newly baptized with it while saying the words: „ Jesus says: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12). Receive this lighted candle as a sign that Christ is the light of your life.” The flame of the baptismal candle is the symbolic light of Christ which, when followed, means that one’s life is on the right road and is consolidated in the redeeming faith in the Triune God professed at baptism.
From the first centuries of the Christian faith, the church has witnessed to the ultimate mystery of light as expressed by the words of the Nicene Creed: „We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”
In today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you.” (John 12:35) From the history of our country and people we find times, which we could call dark and gloomy. These are related to wars, occupations, the dominance of a foreign power and spirit over us. How is it with our lives as Christians? If we have not focused on the light from our baptismal candle and have forfeited our Christian faith, have we not allowed ourselves to be occupied by darkness? „He who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes,” says Jesus. (John 12:35)
We try to compensate the lack of true light in the environs of our lives with artificial light. We do this every day, especially here in the northern hemisphere. Most of the time we are awake we pass in bright artificial light and we can experience natural light on a winter’s day only for a moment. There is too little northern sunlight to be enjoyed; however, it is plenteous enough to love this piece of land – flat and rich in limestone – on the coast of the Baltic Sea, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
There is a greater concern with the light that we need for the bliss of our souls and life eternal. The darkness, in which one gets lost, off the right road, is not physical, it is spiritual. In today’s world this may be even deemed as light or enlightenment. In truth, it is the absence of true light. Enlightenment, whose foundation is based only upon human values and wishes and does not possess Christ as the cornerstone, of course enables enough luminous emittance necessary to survive in this temporal world but it does not guarantee life eternal. Artificial light is available in quantities that allow life to be lived but this does not save from destruction nor death.
In one of the darkest periods of our history wrote the Tartu poet Artur Alliksaar (1923-1966):
In the beginning there had to be light.
Otherwise creation would have been hopeless.
In the light there is equal pain and enchantment.
As long as there is light, there can be no death.
Jesus encourages his disciples: „While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:36) As long as the sun is shining and we care about the environment around us that God according to His plan of creation gave us to till and to hold – then there is life on earth. This life changes from a hopeful plan of creation to a hopeless surrender immediately when we surrender our faith in the Creator and the light of the world to a human-centered substitute light. This happens when learned politeness and legislated tolerance begin to govern and there is no place in life for the greatest and unbounded love that is also plenteous for the lost souls. It is with this love that Jesus loves us sinners. This is how we have to love as well.
„Believe in the light!” is Jesus’ cry to his disciples. To his church. To me. To everyone. But not everyone listens to his call – people have the freedom to ignore it and that is often done. Not all who followed Jesus on the dusty roads from village to village accompanied him to the cross nor were amongst those who bore him to the dark tomb. Some accompanied Jesus to the borders of their village and then returned home to daily tasks at hand, returned to all that was dear to their heart.
But for those who follow Jesus, for his disciples, his cry: „Believe in the light!” is not just a call to which one can choose to respond or not to respond. For them it is not a question of freedom of choice nor of will. For the church and its leaders, workers and members, Jesus’ command to believe in the light is a truth without any alternative. None other can we proclaim, lest we stray from the road and are struck by darkness, as Jesus warns. If this darkness is furnished only with artificial light, yes, the room is more lit and yet the darkness in the soul is more gloomy.
The only way for us to confront this kind of darkness is to remind ourselves of the light of the baptismal candle, always and everywhere hold fast to the faith in Christ and so fill our lives with the fruit of that faith, with love. This means, to „rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”– to hold one another! (Romans 12:15)