Beeswax Candles

I have traveled to a few foreign countries, each time aware of smells and aromas different from what I am familiar with. My first journey was to Paris where I was inundated with the smells of all kinds of perfumes and colognes. Now anytime I pass the cosmetic section of a department store, the aromas make me think of that trip to Paris. Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows what I mean.

While navigating the narrow shop-lined streets of Old Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I was confronted with a particularly sweet smell that seemed to permeate everything. I discovered the common source – virgin beeswax candles. Almost every shop was selling them in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. They were sold in bundles of 30-40, thousands and thousands of bundles. (They are apparently available on Amazon, as well). I had never seen these pencil-thin beeswax candles before in my life. What was their significance?

I discovered that the candles are of particular importance in Eastern Christian traditions. We got a little sense of their use while in Jerusalem visiting various Christian shrines like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After returning from our pilgrimage to Israel, I did a little more digging…

Our Eastern Orthodox friends celebrated Easter this past weekend (April 24, 2022). This is my abridged understanding of how Greek orthodoxy celebrates the resurrection of Jesus: The celebration actually begins the night prior to Easter, the day often referred to as Holy Saturday (the “forgotten day” of Easter week). Parishioners gather for a typical lengthy liturgical service. At midnight, in a completely darkened church, a priest steps out from the altar area with a single lighted candle (the Holy Light), announcing “Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

“Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

The parishioners arrive with candles in hand, prepared to receive the light of the world. While continuing to chant “Christos Anesti!” the priest begins passing the Holy Light to nearby parishioners who in turn pass the light to one another, saying “Christos Anesti!” with the recipient replying “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly He is Risen). The light, representing the Risen Christ radiates out into the congregation, then out the door into the world. The candles, usually beeswax, remain lit and carried home, bringing the Light into their homes.

As we witnessed when in Israel, light from candles permeates Eastern Orthodox tradition, culture, and worship. As it apparently should! The Apostle John began his Gospel narrative by reminding his readers that Jesus is the light of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…  9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:1-5, 9)

Jesus’ teaching likely shaped John’s thinking regarding this “light of all mankind.” In John 7, we find Jesus in Jerusalem attending the Festival of the Tabernacles (or Booths). It was one of three annual festivals to which the Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, if at all possible. As typical, Jesus used the opportunity to teach “the people” about God’s Kingdom. And as typical, opposition arose from the religious leaders, specifically the chief priests and the Pharisees.

The feast associated with the Festival included a lamp lighting ritual. It is possible that Jesus was alluding to this ritual when he said to the people (anyone within hearing – pilgrims, his followers, the opposition)…

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

John would also have remembered Jesus’ teaching in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking specifically to his disciples, his close followers, Jesus passed the light onto them:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

As Christ-followers in the 21st century, maybe we should light a few beeswax candles as a reminder that we, too, are the light of the world. We possess the light but are not to be possessive of that light. We are to let it shine. We are to pass it on to others, so it can radiate out into a dark and broken world. A statement N.T. Wright made at the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2010 comes to mind…

Politics is the constant to-ing & fro-ing between tyranny and chaos.  But we believe in Jesus Christ and in the sovereign saving rule that he exercises from the cross and in His resurrection.  And we have the task of modeling before the world what that sort of polis would look like.  Not as an independent thing hiding away from the world, keeping the light to ourselves so that we can then say, “look at the rest of the world, isn’t it dark?”  Well, of course it is if we’re not shining the light there!

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

An addendum (4/29/2022). I invited my friend and Young Life Colleague in North Macedonia, Brook Filipovski , to critique my description of Eastern Orthodox Easter. Her response: I think you did a great job of explaining the Orthodox practice. We have actually not been to a service here as our kids are so little and there’s no good place to go in the church, but maybe next year… This year I was at a friend’s house until just past midnight as she turned 40 on Easter morning. As I drove our mutual friend and me home, we got detoured as a huge Orthodox church in the neighborhood was spilling out thousands on the street in the 12:15 AM time slot. It was very moving to see everyone with their candles.