On the morning of that day, at 4.35am I was sleeping peacefully in my bed, like many others in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
Suddenly, not only did my bed begin to move ever-so-slowly across the room, the entire house I was living in began to shake, rattle and roll, uncontrollably.
What was occurring has become known as the Canterbury earthquake. It struck with a magnitude 7.1 force. The shaking, rattling and rolling went on for what seemed like an eternity. I was so frightened I just lay on my bed and prayed. I knew it was an earthquake. With my home town being Wellington, I had experienced a few “shakes” as my Mum use to call them, but this was like an enormous giant striding down the main street looking for someone!
After the shaking subsided everyone in the parish house where I was living gathered in the lounge. The first thing we became aware of as we reached for the light switch was that there was no power. Nowhere in the house was there electric power. It was the same situation outside the house: there was no power; the city sat, broken, in darkness.
As daylight broke through the darkness, evidence of the devastating effect of this earthquake became apparent. There had been no loss of life (this would occur next February when a second major earthquake struck the region in the middle of the day). However, many buildings both commercial and residential were destroyed or badly damaged. Roads were so broken they could not be driven on and essential services such as water and sewerage had been disrupted .
With no power, daytime life becomes awkward. We managed to cook using a gas-fired barbecue, we could wash ourselves and our clothes in cold water. However, what happens at night, when all is dark? How do you find your way through the house, to the lounge, to the kitchen, the bathroom and of course to your bedroom?
Well if you live next door to a church the answer is somewhat easier. Use church candles! There were many boxes of candles stored away. So over to the church by daylight, secure the boxes of candles, and then at night-time light a candle or two. And here lies what ended up being the magic: If you have ever had cause to live by candlelight you become aware of two realities. First, a candle does not light up the entire darkness. Unlike electric light which lights up the entire space, the candle lights up enough for you to move carefully around. Second, if you want to move about you need to take the candle with you! So if I was to find my way through the house to my upstairs bedroom I would need to carry a candle and the candle would throw enough light for me to make my way forward. So I was walking into the darkness with the confidence of the candle light.
The major Easter image in the Christian world is the Easter Candle. For centuries the Church liturgy had the Easter Candle lit by the Easter fire outside the Church and carried into the church.
When I was a young boy the Easter liturgy began at 11pm. And it began in darkness. The entire church was in darkness, the congregation waiting in anticipation! The Easter Candle is lit by the Easter fire outside the door of the church, then the priest would walk slowly up the centre aisle of the church, and pausing would sing in a clear voice, “ Lumen Christi” (“Light of Christ”) and those gathered would sing in response “Deo Gratias” (“Thanks be to God”). Each time he paused the priest would turn to those in the pews (who would have an unlit candle in their hand), and would light two or three from the Easter Candle, and then continue on his way to the sanctuary of the Church.
Those who had their candle lit from the Easter Candle would then turn to those beside them and light their candle. And so the church, which had been complete darkness, gradually became alive in candle light. Not dramatic light through electric light, rather light all from the once source, the Easter Candle, the Lumen Christi, the Light of Christ.
We all can walk in this life through and with the Light of Christ. However, Christ is not an electric power source of light. You don’t “switch” Jesus on and all is illumined, every dark place immediately bathed in light. If Christ was an electric light, we would soon forget Him - just like when you walk into a dark room and switch on the light switch. The whole of the room is lit up and we move around freely aware of furniture, tables, chairs and other objects. We can even avoid the dog that always seem to sit right in the doorway, and the cat that is always in my seat!
The nuisance is we are so busy walking around or sitting and chatting, or watching the television, or reading a book or the paper that we forget about, we ignore, the source of light.
Christian faith is Easter faith, and Easter faith is candle light faith!
The invitation is to carry Christ the Candle Light with me as my companion; then as we walk together into the dark places enough for me to see is illumined.
I see by the Light of Christ. Easter faith, Resurrection faith, is candle light faith! Lumen Christi – Christ our Light, Thanks be to God.
Fr Gerard Whiteford
(Visiting Catholic priest to the Cook Islands.)