John 8:12 [NRSV]
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
I John 1:5-7a
This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.
This time of year, in the fall, there are a variety of traditions that celebrate the symbolism and presence of light. One such holiday is a big one: Diwali. Also called Dipawali, Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in India. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that people light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. To put it in context, Diwali is just as important to people from India as Christmas is to American Christians. And it is not just Hindus who celebrate Diwali. So do Jains, Buddhist, Sikhs, and many others.
And do did I. On Thursday night, I went to a friend’s place in Philly to celebrate Diwali with a group of people from various parts of India and the U.S. We ate great food [including particular sweets that are famous during Diwali] and wonderful curry with rice. After the meal, we ventured out into Center City to find an appropriate place to light up the world—with fireworks, of course. This is a common occurrence during the days of Diwali. Now because in Pennsylvania “real” fireworks are not legal, one of my friends purchased the PA-sanctioned sparklers, spinning flowers, and grand finale sparking thingys. We found a parking lot. We fired up the sparklers. We were having a great time. And then…
A random person walking by started yelling something at us.
At first, we couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was incensed. Soon enough, we figured out that she was yelling:
“No! You can’t do that. Not here. No! This is wrong! Stop! You must stop!”
Apparently, not everyone embraces the light? So one of the people in our group approached her and explained that we were not harming anyone or anything and that it was Diwali and that these fireworks were legal and that we would clean it all up. But the lady didn’t care. She kept on ranting and threatened to call 911. Well, we didn’t stop. We kept on going. She eventually took her dog and left.
Then, on Friday, I was eating a samosa at a place near where I live, talking to the manager of the café, and she told me: “Yeah, my cousin was shooting off fireworks on his own lawn on Thursday and one of his neighbors called the cops on him.”
I couldn’t believe it. On his own lawn? Thankfully, the cops who showed up told the neighbor that everything was okay. After all, they were using PA-sanctioned fireworks on their own property, no? Makes we wonder if the 4th of July would elicit the same response. I’m guessing not.
So what does this lead me to think? Well, first of all, it makes me sad for those who cannot even for one moment embrace a holiday [even if it’s new to them] that celebrates light. But it also reminds me that not everyone is open and understanding. Not everyone wishes light for everyone, or light for the world. It’s sad but true.
Also, though, celebrating Diwali [and encountering the opposition] reminds me that if we are open to it, we realize that we are all connected. I mean, it doesn’t matter which religion you hold to or don’t. Light is a universal idea. The thought that someone could be in a really difficult time in their life and somehow light breaks through—we call can resonate with that. And I think we all want to think that light lives in each one of us, that light is in the world.
Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth thought this. Jesus taught others that light lived in them and that this light was God and that this light made them a community. Jesus also taught that each person should not keep their light to themselves. They should let their light shine. It’s the idea of God-essence being within you and me.
And while this is a beautiful idea [and one I try to embrace], we cannot ignore the other side of it. The Diwali story and the Christian story don’t just include light, but also darkness. And if you wish to locate the source of the light and the darkness, look no further than yourself. You see, the point of all this is to affirm that we should not judge others.
We are capable of light but we are just as capable of doing harmful and hurtful things.
If ever we think we have “arrived” as a kind and accepting person, we are in danger. We must always remember continually seek light, pursue it, surround ourselves with people who emit light, and in some cases, we must light it up even when others are telling us not to.
So what will that look like for you? How will you recognize the inner light you have? How will you emit light so others can see and connect with you?