Let there be light. Just after dawn on the winter solstice, a 200-year-old California mission is bathed in such a dazzling blaze of sunlight that the altar appears to burst into flames. It's an annual "illumination" that draws the devoted, presenting what some observers consider awesome "special effects," reports the Los Angeles Times. But some historians believe the San Juan Bautista Mission and others like it up and down California were specifically engineered by Franciscan priests to honor the sun—and to appeal to local Indians' solar-worshipping religions.
"For many Native Americans, the solstice was the most dreaded day of the year. They believed the sun was dying and only its rebirth could ensure their survival," explains archeologist Ruben Mendoza, who has been investigating the phenomenon for years. He spotted his first illumination at San Juan Bautista, and recognized why some have described it as seeing the "light of the great beyond." Since then, he has found solstice, equinox and special feast day solar illuminations of altars at 60 sites throughout the Southwest, including many of California's 21 mission churches. Not everyone agrees with Mendoza. The curator of San Francisco Mission Dolores says priests would not have accommodated local faiths in such a way. It "would be considered pagan, not Christian," he says. It's just "a fluke of nature, a 'wowee!' kind of thing." But still another mission curator believes the priests did try to incorporate sun-worshipping in Christianity. "Instead of replacing a religion, you're fulfilling it," she said. "It's synthesis instead of a conquest." (Read more Ruben Mendoza stories.)