Electric lighting is one of the conveniences we often take for granted, but its near-universal availability is a fairly recent development.
At the turn of the 20th Century, for example, the streets of Lowell, Mass., were still lit by 876 gas lamps and 397 kerosene street lights. These were lit every night and extinguished every morning by 34 lamplighters.
In 1935, when the Rural Electrification Administration was established, only 11% of American farms had electricity. Before the coming of electricity, nightfall was a rather big deal. Lamps or candles had to be lit. My brother still has the huge kerosene lantern my grandfather used to carry to the barn when he needed to go out there in the dark.
For centuries, Christians viewed the time of lamp lighting as a metaphor for the Light of Christ illuminating a world in darkness. One of the oldest known Christian hymns, the 3rd century Greek Phos hilaron, was sung as lamps were lit.
Joyous Light of glory of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ:
We have come the setting of the sun,
And we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O giver of life:The universe proclaims your glory.
The hymn survives in hymnals (S 59 – S 61, and Hymns 25, 26, 36, 37 in The Hymnal 1982), and may be sung as candles are lit for Evening Prayer. The hymn can also be preceded by the following versicles:
V. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.
R. The Light no darkness can overcome.
V. Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening,
R. And the day is almost over.
V. Let your Light scatter the darkness,
R. And illumine your church.
And the whole little service can be concluded with the following Collect:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. You led your people Israel by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Enlighten our darkness by the Light of your Christ; may his word be a lamp to our feet and a light to path. For you are merciful, and you love your whole creation, and we your creatures glorify you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
During this season of increasing darkness, we supplement our electric lighting with candlelight, trees adorned with lights, and other illuminated holiday decorations. Perhaps we could adopt this ancient devotion to help us meditate on Christ, our Light.