Tomorrow night, if you walk past an otherwise dark window in the top floor of an apartment in West Philadelphia, you will see the light of a row of candles along the window ledge, a muted tribute to the light of the lamps gracing millions of homes in India. There the new moon night of Diwali is bathed with a warm glow, and fireworks fill the night sky with thunderclap and joyful flame.
Diwali, the festival of light, is one with several stories attached to it. The most popular in the Hindu tradition is the story of the return of Rama, the king of Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to his capital city after a 14-year exile and a war in which he defeated the demon-king Ravana, a story recorded in the epic poem, the Ramayana. It commemorates the people of Ayodhya, who lit oil lamps along the road to light the returning king's path in the darkness of a new moon night, and welcome them back, finally, to their home.
Given that Rama is very frequently identified with the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver, and his wife Sita with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, the holiday is as such devoted primarily to the worship of these deities. Of course, the Bible is unambiguous about the worship of other gods, so as a Christian, there are some parts of the holiday in which I will never be willing to take part. However, there is much in the imagery of Diwali that evokes the Bible's own imagery of light and darkness, and provides a fascinating and distinctly Indian frame for the master narrative of the Bible -- the story of God redeeming humanity through the life and work of Jesus.
Like other religious traditions (see, for example, Aamir Hussein's article on the role of light in Islam), the Bible is awash with metaphors of light and darkness, starting right from the very beginning. The first recorded act of God in the creation of the heavens and earth was to say "Let there be light," and separate the light from the darkness. This is a uniquely appropriate beginning, as God created in order to show forth His own character and attributes (see Romans 1:20). First and foremost, light is a metaphor for God's own character. "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." He is pure, beautiful, and the source of knowledge and truth. In fact, this aspect of God's character is a source of a radically God-centered epistemology -- not "seeing is believing," but "In your light, we see light," in the words of Psalm 36:9.
Not only is light an expression of God's character, it also symbolizes the Word of God in its other forms, particularly its written form. The author of the Bible's longest Psalm expresses it this way: "Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light unto my path." It is through the word that we learn to distinguish good and evil, wisdom and folly, reality and illusion, falsehood and truth.
Yet truth is uncomfortable, because it is not selective, and the purity of God and His Word have profound implications for us, who are measured according to that standard. In the words of Jesus, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19). Isaiah poignantly lays out the bleak picture of a world without revelation: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged, and looking upward, they will curse their king and their God. Then they will see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness." (Isaiah 8:20-22). In his own way, Isaiah captures the nihilistic despair of the early Sophist Gorgias, "Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others."
But all is not lost. Even as Isaiah looks at this gloom, the following note is one of hope: "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. ... The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned." He prophesies a time of peace, brought on by a coming king, who "will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom," and bring honor to "Galilee of the Gentiles." And there the story lies dormant, for several hundred years -- a ray of hope in the darkness of a world gone awry -- "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5)
It is after the exile, under Roman occupation, that Isaiah's theme resurfaces. In Matthew's account, it is Jesus, the teacher in Galilee who is the light dawning in the darkness (Matthew 4:13-16), the one who boldly claims, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 12:46). In the New Testament accounts, it is Jesus who unites the different strands of the metaphor of light. He is God with God from the beginning, (John 1:1-2) the Word of God made flesh (John 1:19), the perfect standard (Hebrews 4:15), and the bringer of hope out of despair by remaking us, who were in darkness, into light, commissioning us to be "children of the light" (Ephesians 5:8), and sending us to "Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)
This then, is where it gets personal. The Enlightenment located both the problems of the world and their solutions in ignorance, and predicted that as we grew in knowledge, we could re-make society in the light of pure reason. Yet over the past several hundred years we have seen that knowledge can just as well cause suffering as relief. Our modernity gave us both the tools to eradicate disease, and the tools to make war on an unimaginable scale. By contrast, a famous Catholic thinker and author of the early 20th century had this to say in his letter to the editor:
Regarding your article 'What's Wrong with the World?'
The Biblical account locates the source of the darkness of the world squarely in the souls of each and every one of us. No one of us has any room to judge, because we are all a part of the problem. Yet the Biblical message is one of hope: God, the source of light, did not abandon the world to its darkness, but came Himself as the light of the world, was rejected by a humanity that hated his light, yet through that rejection paid the price so that we could once again approach the throne of unapproachable light, have his light dwell inside us, and work out the consequences of that redemption in bringing light to the world.
And so tomorrow night, I will be lighting the candles outside my room. I light them as a celebration of the victory of Jesus, the light of the world, over the evil in the world. And I light them as lights along the path, an invitation for Gods's Spirit to come into my heart, and to bring about the victory of good over evil, of light over darkness in my life.
Happy Diwali! How are you celebrating Diwali this year? Share your story with us. Email your photos and reflections to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Text submissions should be 300-400 words in length. We will accept them until Nov. 15, 2012. Check out our Diwali liveblog.