“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” – Chinese proverb.
Every Christmas Eve during my childhood, our family attended the candlelight service at our home church. With the sanctuary festooned in decorations, we sang carols, recited prayers, heard the familiar story of Jesus’s birth. But, to me, the most vibrant moment came at the end. The pastor lit a candle from the Christ flame at the center of the Advent wreath, passing that spark to a few people who passed it on until everyone was aglow. Then we filed outside to the church’s playing field, forming an illuminated circle under the stars of a deep December sky. An elder would recite John 1:5 – The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Finally, we all lifted our candles and sang Silent Night.
Even as a boy, I understood the audacity of this tradition. I heard the nightly body counts from the Vietnam War, broadcast on network television. I knew of the geopolitical tensions between the US and USSR. I had seen footage of race riots that had recently torn through our country’s urban streets.
But I also knew the darkness closer to home, the struggles of those in our congregation. As I scanned their faces in the circle of light, I marveled at their courage. I saw the family who lost their daughter to a tragic car wreck. The man praying during a time of unemployment. The woman wearing a wig to hide her head denuded by chemotherapy. The widower tenaciously leaning on his walker, determined to stand tall despite the visceral loss of his wife of over 60 years.
All of them, wicks held high in the crisp darkness. Daring to hope.
I no longer identify with any particular faith, relishing the diversity of meanings in our world. But I’m still a candle lighter. I light them in remembrance and silent prayer. I light them with compassion. I light them as symbols of rebellious hope. As I remaster this post at Christmas time, 2022, I think of some candlelight moments from my past.
- I had spent the day in a squatter’s settlement of Tijuana, land reclaimed from a garbage dump. The residents had no electricity or water, living in crudely assembled shacks on the dusty streets. We were there to build simple homes, but as a pastor I had double duty, praying for the sick and blessing a newborn baby. That little girl, looking up at me with her shiny dark eyes, seemed to embody human longing. After dinner at a downtown taqueria, I walked to La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. In an alcove flickering with light and shadow, I lit a candle for those who stand tall in the midst of squalor. A candle for justice.
- I was wandering the streets of Munnar, India, a unique village in the state of Kerala where equal amounts of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims live in rare harmony. At a roadside shrine to Ganesha, I lit a candle for tolerance in our fractured world.
- I was on a solo camping trip in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park. That night, the brilliance of the Milky Way was a shimmering glimpse of eternity. I lit a candle for two people whose memorial services I had recently performed. Henry Parra, taken by alcohol at age 39 just moments after a prayed at his bedside. Tony Matrulo, dead at age 13 from a freakish go-cart accident, just months after I helped his troubled family find the embrace of community in our church.
Given the many dark events of these past few years – the pandemic, the right-wing assault on our nation’s Capital, the war in Ukraine – I have a prayer for all of you. Whether you’re lighting candles for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or just holiday cheer in general – may you have the audacity to choose hope in the midst of whatever trial you’re facing. May you have a deep and abiding peace!
Two days after being shot by an unknown gunman, Bob Marley performed at a peace rally in Jamaica. Before going on stage, he uttered these famous words: “The people that are trying to make the world worse never take a day off, why should I? Light up the darkness!”