A Christmas Eve Reflection: Light Your Candle Quietly
August made his own menorah this year. I’ve mentioned before how, quite by accident, we ended up at an Orthodox Jewish Preschool. The presence of Hanukkah in our lives has made for a lot of interesting conversations.
It’s also meant that August wanted to light his handmade menorah all through the eight days of Hanukkah. So we did (at least I tried to...it didn't happen every night). I don't know much about Hanukkah, but I know that at the preschool's Hanukkah party, everyone sang a song of blessing in Hebrew while they lit the candles. So, back at our house, when we lit them, I thought we should sing a song, even if I couldn't sing in Hebrew. I talked about how the Jewish people remember God keeping his promises, protecting them, giving them light in the darkness.
And I sang a song as we lit those candles. It was s a simple song I sang once in middle school choir:
Light one candle for hope
One bright candle for hope
He brings hope to every heart
He comes, He comes.
We lit the menorah and sang: Hope, Love, Peace.
What is it about lighting candles that is so connected with prayer? Why do we crave that connection? Why do we long for God to come to us in flame? Dangerous but necessary, consuming but making all things visible?
I grew up in a classic evangelical church. We were not liturgical. When I was a kid, even the Advent wreath in the front of the thousand-person sanctuary contained battery powered lights shaped like candles. The only time I ever saw candles in our church was on Christmas Eve and at weddings.
But every year at Christmas Eve, we sang Silent Night and watched the candles pass from one person to another, watched flame spread until the room was lit into one galaxy of stars in the dark sky. We all held the light. We all were bearers of hope.
Candles are not safe. Wax burns hands and ruins carpets. Flames destroy everything they touch. Fire brings heat and visibility but it also eats flesh. It cooks food and burns it to nothing. Fire is good but it is not safe.
And so we light our candles tonight. We gather with family and drink hot cocoa and tell the story of the young girl and her betrothed, traveling to Bethlehem at their most vulnerable. We tell the story of the town that refused to make room for a girl in labor. We tell the story of the cows sharing their feed trough with the Creator of the universe. We tell the story of angels flashing into the sky and the “multitude of the heavenly host” making music for a few shepherds on a hillside.
What kind of story is this?
The Gospel of John tells the story this way:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Brooksie and I have been working on words. He loves to show me the sky. “Sky! Sky!” he says when we’re on the swing at the park, his head tipped back, his chin to the blue.
“What is in the sky?” I ask him.
“Cloud,” he’ll say. “Sun,” he’ll say. As if both of those—the cloud and the sun—are brother and sister. Two similar parts of one big sky. Of course, we know different. We know the sun is a molten orb of fire. It’s larger than we can comprehend. It gives us warmth; it heats our bodies and grows our food. It allows life to exist on this planet. But it also blinds us, burns our skin, marks us with cancer. It heats us to temperatures that are not safe.
Light is a powerful thing. We say we understand it. We throw around good Christian phrases about “being lights” to people who “live in the darkness,” but I wonder if we really believe it. I wonder if our own carrying of light is frightening to us?
Because there is wonder in the flame, of course. There is danger in it. There is life in the flame. And there is also great power.
And sometimes in that moment of silence on Christmas Eve, our candles heating the air around us, that can be enough. Wonder and danger and life and great power. How can we hold so much mystery and not be undone by the wild heat of it? Do we remember what it is we hold?
The Light that gives light to everyone is coming into the world.