Those of you who know the British drama “Downton Abbey” will know all about the Dowager Countess, Lady Violet. Played by Maggie Smith, Lady Violet typically does not like change. There is a great scene that illustrates this in one of the very first episodes. Lady Violet enters one of the rooms of Downton Abbey, and upon entering the room, she immediately uses her fan to shield herself from something above. It turns out that the chandelier has been converted to electricity. “Such a glare,” she says. “I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about.”
I thought of Lady Violet and her suspicion of electric lights a few months ago when I visited a church that had votive lights—candles that represent prayers of the faithful like ours in the Mary Chapel—except these votive lights had no candles. They were powered by electricity. I had heard of such things but had never seen them. I didn’t get too close (afraid of vapors, or worse), but I think each one had its very own on/off switch. I suppose after a person says a prayer and “turns on” a candle, a sexton or employee of the church eventually goes by and simply flicks the switch: prayer over; light off.
I love candles in church—real candles. I love them not only because they are pretty to look at, but even more, because they remind us of why we’re here, why we have faith. The flames that flicker remind us of the fragility of our faith, the promise of our faith, and the power of our faith.
We know faith is fragile. We have friends and family whose faith has dwindled. Maybe yours is a little weak. It could be that the flame was blown out by a storm or a trauma, or maybe it just died out over time—a candle untrimmed, a wick that needed support, or maybe too long in the face of incessant pressure, like a candle positioned in a drafty space.
Last Wednesday’s Washington Post told the story about St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq. Last year around this time, there would have been 300 or 400 worshippers. But because of bombings and fires, violence against Christians, forced conversions by fundamentalist Muslims, and just the steady erosion of war and culture—there are only about 75 parishioners now. And people keep leaving. Father Mokhalasee, the priest of the parish said, “If it stays this way, we will shrink to nothing. . . .We believe that God wants us here for diversity in the region. Unfortunately, people are afraid of the future, and they are leaving” (Washington Post, December 22, 2014).
A lit candle can remind us that faith is fragile. But a candle also represents promise. I love it when we come into church like yesterday morning and there are new, long candles everywhere. I wonder how long they’ll last. What will the worship be like as we light them? What music will be sung, what prayers will be said to accompany them? Whose faces will be enlightened?
Our Old Testament reading this morning talks about messengers who bring peace, those who bring good news, and reminding us that God reigns. When people gather for a vigil to remember someone who has died, they light candles. When people gather in protest, they light candles. These are signs of hope, signs of what the psalm proclaims when he says:
Sing to the LORD a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
The psalmist prays in several tenses. The language is in the past tense, as though God has already done these marvelous things, but the psalmist (just like us) knows that God’s work is not yet finished. Bad things happen. Evil has its day. But the past tense of the song puts us into the future of faith, trusting in God’s goodness, “In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.”
A lit candle can be fragile. It can symbolize and encourage hope. But it can also point to real power.
In George Herbert’s poem “Christmas (I),” the speaker is someone who, in this season, has been riding. He is tired in “body and mind.” He’s worn out and so he stops into a pub for refreshment and rest. It turns out that it’s an inn, but not just any inn. It’s like the Bethlehem inn and Christ is there to welcome all—especially the tired, the weary, the beaten down: “My dearest Lord,” Herbert writes, “ready there to be all passengers’ most sweet relief.” Herbert then plays with the image of light.
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave.
Commenting on this poem, Carol Rumens points to what she sees as George Herbert’s doing “a little metaphysical pruning.” “God has ‘contracted’ his light to be born in human time; he has made his light very much smaller to suit his incarnation” [The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2014]. She suggests that in the way Herbert brings the Incarnation down to this single point of light, light contracted even to the point of a candle, of a person, “Herbert constructs his God’s luminous humanity out of his own.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The light has come, the light of God’s creation and love, and it has concentrated like a single flame in each of us. The light has made a home in us.
So often when a friend or a family member or even a stranger is in a dark place, we are called upon to bring light. We might be blessed with a word or a gesture of some kind that helps, but more often than not, our presence is what is needed: prayerful, quiet, yet aflame with God’s love.
This Christmas, may the candles continue to burn brightly, but even more, may the flame of Christ’s Incarnation burn in our hearts that we might add light to the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.