“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” – Chinese Proverb.
Every Christmas Eve during my youth, our family attended the Candlelight Service at our home church. With the sanctuary festooned in decorations, we sang carols, recited prayers, savored the Gospel saga. But 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 everyone. Then we filed outside to the church’s playing field, forming an illuminated circle under the deep December sky. An elder recited John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In unison, we lifted our candles and sang “Silent Night.”
Even as a boy, I understood the audacity of this tradition. I would scan the congregation, marveling at their courage. I saw the family who lost their daughter to a tragic car wreck. Another one praying during a time of unemployment. I saw the woman wearing a wig to hide her head denuded by chemotherapy. I saw the widower tenaciously leaning on his walker, determined to stay independent.
All of them, wicks held high in the crisp darkness. Daring to hope.
To this day, I’m a candle-lighter. I light them in remembrance and silent prayer. I light them with visceral compassion. Three moments burn within me this Christmas.
- I had spent the day in a squatter’s settlement of Tijuana, land reclaimed from a garbage dump. The residents had petitioned for electricity and water; until it arrived, they managed with pilas, grills, and 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, curiosity and camera in hand. It’s a unique village in the state of Kerala, a place 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 troubled 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 shimmeriing glimpse of eternity. I lit a candle for two people whose memorial services I had recently performed: Henry Parra, taken by alcohol at 39; Tony Matrulo, dead at 13 from a go-cart accident, just months after I baptized him.
Given the many dark events of this past year, I have a prayer for all of you. Whether you’re lighting candles for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or holiday cheer in general – may you have the audacity to choose hope in the midst of any 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!”