Candle Lighting and Other Acts of Faith: A Reflection on Christmas
I Will Light Candles This Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
–Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas
Recently I received a wonderful and kind note in the mail from a member of our church. The card featured a dachshund wearing a bow tie and top hat, with a caption that read, “Thank You Kindly.” The handwritten message thanked me for “standing up for what is right, and true, and good.” The giver acknowledged that recent months have been difficult for all of us, but that “with all the darkness in the world right now,” God must be doing something BIG, and that light must be just about to break through. I remembered the old saying that “in the darkest night, the stars shine their brightest.” Then I thought about Christmas, and the light of Christ. I recalled with reverence the beautiful (and reassuring) passage from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Indeed, the darkness will never overcome.
Every year, as I approach the Christmas season, I return to a favorite spiritual writer, Howard Thurman. There is something about the season that seems to call for candles to illuminate one’s house (and one’s church). Thurman is a master at taking simple seasonal moments and, from them, creating sacred acts; deeply connected to our faith and the salvation of the world. He elaborates on the lighting of Christmas candles, vowing to light the candle of fellowship, even when so many feel disconnected and cut-off from one another. He is certain that “the experiences of unity in human relations are more compelling than the concepts, fears and prejudices that divide.” He prays as he lights a Christmas candle, that even in his own heart, he will “beat down the boundaries of my exclusiveness until my sense of separateness is completely enveloped in a sense of fellowship.” The light of Christ enables us to see past ourselves—to see our neighbor more clearly, and to connect despite any differences.
Thurman, too, is determined to light the candle of hope this Christmas. He reminds us that even in moments of despair and depression, when all seems lost and we are set adrift in a sea of uncertainty, hope is the ever-present mood of Christmas. Within the simple elements of the sacred story, the basic circumstances of familial love, with only the raw materials of a newborn babe, family, and work, we hold on to our faith. For “life keeps coming on, keeps seeking to fulfill itself, keeps affirming the possibility of hope.” When we light a candle, we defiantly pronounce that the darkness will not define us, or have the final word on our lives and in our world.
At its core, the Christmas story is not just a sentimental escape—it is a fully-charged challenge to the status quo; a newborn king who threatens those who pursue a worldly rule that is not of God or God’s values. When we light our Christmas candles this year, remember that we engage in acts far more powerful than a comforting devotional moment. We are empowered with the courage of Christ: to shed light on a world of wrongs, to illuminate those injustices that some desire to remain hidden. Candle-lighting becomes an act of trust in God alone, thereby defying all other distractions of our time that compete for our attention and allegiances. Whatever the context or circumstance in which we find ourselves this Christmas, regardless of the tenor of the emotional climate that pervades or buttresses us, the light still shines. The candles of Christmas, in the hands of the faithful, become luminous torches that shine with the fire of a thousand suns; an illuminated path that blesses and makes sacred everything that it touches, including the darkness that contains it.
I will light candles this Christmas. In doing so, may I bring light to the entire world.