Saturday, December 26, 2009

lessons from a Christmas Eve candle

Christmas Eve in Indiana. I found myself in a small church sanctuary in Mishawaka, listening to the traditional Scripture readings of the season and singing carols. Sadly, the music did not include my favorite lyrical reflections: O Holy Night, and O Come, O Come Emmanuel. They are the songs which call me back to the deep longing into which the Christ child was born. A people who mourned in lonely exile, who pined away in sin and error--these are the people to whom a savior was given that night. The songs remind me to hear the call of Christmas: Rejoice! Emmanuel has come, and the soul has felt its worth.

The service ended as most Christmas Eve services do, with the lighting of small candles while we all sang Silent Night. (Though at the church I used to attend in Carbondale, they actually play the Hallelujah chorus instead.) As we sang, I stared at the candle. I watched as the wax melted into a clear pool of liquid around the wick and then dribbled down the side and into my protective plastic holder...thing. I turned and saw Tim tip his candle toward his bulletin, playing with the wax in the way that, if we are honest, every person in the sanctuary wants to do. Verse by verse, the candles continued to burn. A year or two more of keeping vigil over the singing of Silent Night, and the candle would be gone, melted entirely and spilled on perhaps a few more Christmas Eve bulletins.

I realized something as I stared at my candle. That small flickering light is meant to symbolize the light of the world, the call to let my flame flicker bravely in the darkness in the name of the one whom we celebrate each Christmas. What I realized was this: the continual, vigilant burning does not end well for the candle. The candle receives no honor or award for longevity or faithfulness: The candle disappears. Its form--it's existence--is sacrificed to its purpose.

In many ways, this is the gospel. As John the Baptist once said, the goal is that Christ would become greater, and his servants would become less. The fire of the Holy One is all consuming, and the life of faithful discipleship is made of a million small deaths. We sacrifice ourselves to our purpose, which is to let God burn so brightly in our lives that we ourselves are less and less visible, and eventually we disappear into the love that burned us up. We give up self preservation because we trust that we will one day be re-formed and made new in that place which is invisible to us while we are in the world.

This little light of mine, may God help me let it shine. And may he create in me a heart that is willing to disappear so that some may find their way home.