December is the darkest month. Daylight Saving Time ended and it’s dark at 4 p.m. We light fires to see better, to get warm and feel cozy. We put candles on a birthday cake. The campfire is the focal point of the campsite. A highlight of our high school homecoming week was a bonfire in the parking lot into which we tossed old books.
Although fireplaces used to be mostly for heat, we now put them center stage and can stare at them all night. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a tongue of fire. Saints are often pictured with a flame over their heads. The Paschal candle lit on Holy Saturday from the sacred fire represents the light of Christ entering the world, with the risen Christ a symbol of light and life dispelling darkness and death. We light Advent candles, one more each week until we are at the shortest day of the year.
This all leads me to a conversation I had about life after death. What kind of bodies will we have? What will we look like? What form will we take? As we talked about Jesus’ appearances after his death, that he was able to walk through locked doors (John 20:19) with his new spiritual body, I wondered aloud if our resurrected bodies would be something bright, like fire. After all, we experience fire with all of our senses: it’s hot, it glows, it often crackles, has a smell and sometimes a taste if the particles that are being burned have the right substance. But wave your hand through fire and you are not hindered by any detectable matter. The same is true about sunlight. It definitely exists but has no substance, yet we can see it and feel its warmth.
During the darkest days of Advent, when we light fires and crave the light, we can also think about our spiritual selves as beings of fire or light. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can be converted from one form into another. But what is the energy of our spirit if not the energy of light, at least in a non-physical sense? I do not know if our souls have substance other than that of consciousness and awareness. So perhaps our eternal spirits are more similar to photons than the chemical reaction that takes place when fire burns an object because the latter involves oxygen, ignition and matter. Yet fire emits light comprised of photons, which are without mass and can be either a particle or a wave.
I find all of this fascinating and deeply spiritual.
Advent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the light of Christ in a world that may seem dark to some. To consider the truth about our spiritual nature as beings of light, temples of the Holy Spirit, is to live more fully in and as the body of Christ. Scientifically, “The human body literally glows, emitting a visible light in extremely small quantities at levels that rise and fall with the day, scientists now reveal” (“Humans Glow in Visible Light,” NBC News, Charles Q. Choi, July 22, 2009).
As we light our Advent candles, pay attention to the addition of light each week, meditate on how the fire dances and changes color, move your hand quickly through the flame to make more real its physical reality, let the light bounce off your hand. Imagine your soul as massless photons, emanating light into the world. Believe that your soul is eternal, that we remember each year at this time that the Light of Christ came into the world to dispel the darkness.
Happy Advent, all you beings of fire and light!
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)