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Asking the Clergy: What does lighting a flame symbolize in your religion?

The Rev. Thomas Cardone of Kellenberg Memorial High

The Rev. Thomas Cardone of Kellenberg Memorial High School, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi of Chuang Yen Monastery and Rabbi Michael Stanger of the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation. Credit: Ray O'Connor Photography; Bhikkhu Bodhi; Rabbi Michael Stanger

Lighting a flame is traditional during Advent, the Christian observance that begins Dec. 1; as part of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated later this month; and in Buddhist rituals — as well as in those of other world faiths. This week’s clergy shed light on the religious significance of such rituals.

The Rev. Thomas Cardone

Chaplain, Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale  

In Roman Catholicism, as well as in many Christian traditions, Advent is marked by the lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath. Generally speaking, the candle is symbolic of Jesus Christ who tells us in John’s Gospel (8:12), “I am the light of the world, the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light of life.”

Christ is our light as we journey through Advent. The candles (three purple and one pink, lit on the third Sunday) represent the four Sundays that precede Christmas. The first and second candle remind us of the prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus. The third candle is pink, the color for joy; we rejoice for the Lord is near. The fourth candle, prepares us to behold the coming of Christ.

The Advent wreath is a family activity in which individuals take turns lighting each candle then leading the family in prayer. During Advent, may the light of Christ shine upon all people of good will!

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

Buddhist scholar-monk, Chuang Yen Monastery, Carmel

In almost all Buddhist traditions, there are three indispensable objects of offering: lights, incense and flowers. Each of these has symbolic significance. Light represents wisdom, incense ethical conduct, and flowers inner virtues of character.

In Sri Lanka, rather than candles, lamps of clay or metal are filled with coconut oil and placed on the altar in front of the image of the Buddha. Along with the offering, a verse is recited in the ancient Pali language: “With this oil lamp dispelling darkness, I venerate the supreme Buddha, the light of the world, who dispels the darkness of delusion.”

When the Buddha attained enlightenment, it is said, a great light of inconceivable radiance appeared in the world. This light was an outward manifestation of the wisdom that blossomed within the Buddha’s mind. The offering of lights on the part of the devotee is a symbolic way of honoring this wisdom — and of expressing one’s own aspiration to obtain the light of wisdom that illuminates the liberating truth.

Rabbi Michael Stanger

The Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation

There is a verse from the Book of Proverbs (20:27) that states: “the lamplight of God is the soul of mankind.” As a result, it is customary in our tradition to light a yahrzeit candle marking the anniversary of a person’s death every year on the Hebrew date they passed. Even when you first come home from the cemetery after a loved one has been buried and you are sitting shiva in your home, it is customary to light a large candle that will burn for the seven-day mourning period. The belief is that the soul of your loved one might yet still burn in your heart and memory.

However, is it also a mitzvah (commandment) to light candles at the outset of Shabbat and all Jewish holy days, as well as at the conclusion of Shabbat (and on all eight nights of Hanukkah as well).

One must remember that in ancient times, before the Advent of electricity, light in one’s home came from candles being lit — that was the only source of illumination (and perhaps warmth) once the sun had set. And in the case of Hanukkah, which will occur later this month, the flickering flames from kindled candles can represent hope even in the darkest times, or during the coldest and shortest days.

Just as God created light from darkness at the outset of creation, the light of candles represents the renewal of life in the face of the gloom of night.

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