Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lessons From Lanterns

            Last Friday was Valentine’s Day, but here in Taiwan it was also Lantern Festival. This holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year.

Some places celebrate Lantern Festival by creating huge sculptures out of paper, cloth or thin plastic and placing lights inside, turning them into giant lanterns. I have seen these sculptures featuring animals (this year there are a lot of horses because it’s the year of the horse), flowers, buildings video game characters and more. Sometimes people will set up whole scenes depicting historical events or traditions.

Others celebrate with “sky lanterns,” which are shaped like light bulbs about the size of my torso. People write wishes on the lanterns and light fires in the bottom. Then they release the lanterns into the sky. A town outside of Taipei called Pingxi is especially known for its sky lanterns.

Last year I went to Pingxi on the day of the lantern festival. I arrived in the middle of the day, but people were already releasing sky lanterns. As I watched the lanterns rise and blow away, I thought they moved gracefully enough, but I didn’t see why they were such a big deal. They looked like large balloons some poor child had let go of, not particularly beautiful.

I met a few friends, and we stayed until after the sun set. Lanterns continued floating up into the air, but they no longer looked like balloons. Now they resembled iridescent jellyfish in the depths of the sea or colored stars rising into the night. The same things that had left me cold a few hours earlier had been transformed into something mystical and hypnotic.

By this time, a huge crowd had descended on Pingxi (or rather, ascended – Pingxi is on a mountain). They gathered in a field where a stage was set up. In between speeches and performances they invited people to step into the space at the center and release the lanterns at the same time. The beauty of each individual lantern was multiplied as they rose together.

I found myself thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world.” Sometimes, it feels like the world is covered in darkness – wars, terrorism, disease, natural disasters … The evil around us can feel as vast and threatening of a night sky on a new moon when the stars are hidden by clouds. But it’s those nights when any light – even a tiny lantern – appears the most beautiful. As much as I love bright, sunny days (both figuratively and literally), sunny weather is not the time you appreciate sky lanterns most. It is the dark times that truly show what we are made of and that reveal the light of Christ shining through us.

Yet in those dark times, a single lantern, however bright, can only do so much. When we rise up as a community, then we turn the night sky into a backdrop for a dance of light. It is when we rise together that the world can see the light isn’t a fluke, a mistake, or a trick their eyes are playing on them. Through us they will see Jesus, who also called Himself the light of the world and who is the one who makes us shine.

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