At many churches, usually on Christmas Eve, people will gather at the end of service in darkened sanctuaries, holding lit candles and singing "Silent Night."
The Rev. Nate Rovenstine says some people might not give much thought to why they do it.
"We try to remind them," says Rovenstine, pastor at Lawrence Wesleyan Church, 3705 Clinton Parkway. "It's easy to say, 'That's what we do before we go home and open presents.'"
But he and other faith leaders say there are much deeper meanings to those lit candles.
Bill Bump, pastor at Lawrence Free Methodist Church, 3001 Lawrence Ave., points to four specific Scripture passages that deal with light when explaining the use of candles:
¢ John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
¢ John 1:9 - "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."
¢ John 8:12, in which Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."
¢ Matthew 5:14, in which Jesus tells his followers, "You are the light of the world."
"Certainly there's nothing in the Bible about candlelight in the manger, but we're celebrating Jesus as the light of the world," Bump says.
Bump says there's also an aesthetic quality to help congregation members realize it's a special time of the year.
"I think it is certainly a traditional thing," he says. "I like to use the term 'compelling environment.' ... It helps you focus. It's something different. Most of the time we don't stand in the darkness, holding a candle."
Rovenstine says members of his congregation lift their candles high during the last verse of "Silent Night."
"It's to symbolize taking the light out into the world," he says. "It changes the lighting in the sanctuary to lift them up."
In a paper published in 2003, Sherridan Anderson of the Briercrest Seminary in Canada wrote that the first candles used in Christian worship probably was for practical purposes, since the meetings took place at night.
In early times, light was especially a symbol of baptism. The idea was that the newborn was being passed a light from his parents. However, Anderson wrote, the use of candles was rejected during the Reformation because it promoted superstitions dealing with candles.
Of course, Christianity isn't the only religion that uses ceremonial candles. Jews recently celebrated Hanukkah, which has at its center the menorah, a Jewish candelabra.
Susan Elkins, president of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, says candles are a key part of every Jewish celebration and service.
"Light is important during all winter religious celebrations, since people gather around fire to share stories, religious rituals, food, comfort and to find warmth in the cold seasons," she says.
"We at the Lawrence Jewish Community had a community candle-lighting ceremony (Dec. 7), and everyone brought their own menorahs to light. After they were all lit and we said the blessing, the warmth and beauty of all those colored candles burning in all those differently shaped menorahs - some historic and some handmade by children - was both moving and exciting."