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An early morning beam of light streams though the open double doors and down the main aisle at Mission San Juan Bautista, illuminating the altar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Mission San Juan Bautista, where visitors and parishioners gathered for the winter solstice illumination.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Sunlight reflects off a Mission San Juan Bautista window.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Sunlight streams down the mission's 188-foot main aisle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Franciscan Brother Keith Warner walks through the beam of sunlight.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The illumination dramatically lights one woman.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist at Cal State Monterey Bay, believes Franciscan architects carefully engineered the luminous event for the sun-worshiping local Indians they sought to convert.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Visitors and parishioners wait for the illumination of the altar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The dawn's early light comes through the mission's windows before the illumination.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Cal State Monterey Bay archaeology students Jewel Gentry and Jennifer Lucido, from left, observe the illumination.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Chief Sonne Reyna of San Juan Bautista, left, and Elayne Reyna, center, chant and play instruments as they await the illumination.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The crowd, including Native Americans, waits for the sun's rays to strike the church.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

A statue at the mission depicts a Native American reaching skyward.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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The Illumination at Mission San Juan Bautista

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The Illumination at Mission San Juan Bautista

Once a year, just after dawn on the day of the winter solstice, people gather at Mission San Juan Bautista to see an “illumination,” a brief, breathtaking interval when a sunbeam shoots through the church’s front window to bathe the altar and the sacred objects around it in a blazing patch of light.

No one is more excited than Ruben Mendoza, a 55-year-old archaeologist who teaches at Cal State Monterey Bay. Mendoza has been researching illuminations at California missions for years and says such events may have had profound meaning to the Native Americans who worshiped at the churches.

Read the full story, “Winter solstice means ‘illumination’ at California mission”

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