One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.
This baby—born into strife, squalor, in a nondescript cave—was more than a feared little rebel threat and chink in the armor of the Roman machine. In time this humble little child set in motion a movement that surpassed Rome and all other empires in size, scope, and revolutionary impact. From Bethlehem the light spread through the dark sanctuary of the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the ends of the earth. Within two hundred years Christ’s world-changing life and gospel was being propagated and theologized by major figures in North Africa (Tertullian), Greece (Clement), Turkey (Polycarp), and Rome (Justin Martyr). Against strident opposition and persecution the light spread quickly and caught fire in some places (Europe), ultimately becoming the dominant cultural influence from that point onwards. 2009 years later, now in places like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, the light is shining brighter by the day.
The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” This was hundreds of years before Mary, Joseph or Jesus were even born, but it was an idea Jesus himself carried on as an adult. “While I am in the world,” he said, “I am the light of the world” (Matthew 9:5).
Tonight is the darkest night of the year. December 21: Winter solstice. It’s the shortest night of the year and the day when the earth is tilted the furthest away from the sun. It’s the day when light is the most elusive.
How fitting that in such a dark week, we celebrate the entry of light into the world. When the world was at it’s darkest—on that silent, cold night 2,000 years ago—cosmic light and eternal hope took human form as a baby (a baby!) born into the humblest of conditions for the sake of a dark, desperate world.
I love the 19th century Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” especially these lines:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Imagine! The hopes and fears of all the years—it all comes to a head at this one point, this turning point in the history of the universe. And of all things, it’s a baby! In him—in this everlasting light shining dimly from a manger—are met the collected pains, fears, tragedies, triumphs, hopes, cries, prayers, bellyaching and sufferings of everyone who has ever lived. Just think about the sheer volume of that!
All of it—all of the baggage we carry, all the things we fight against, the wars and hunger, losses and loves—it all looks toward this one singular point. This light. Like the Bethlehem star that alerted the wise men to the coming of Christ, it’s a light that shines high and bright, for all the world to see.
The spreading of that light, as symbolized in the Christmas Eve candlelight services, comes about through the church, which has been Christ’s “body” on earth ever since the resurrection. The light spreads (has never stopped spreading) through Christians who are willing to live up to the calling of Christ on the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)
It’s inspiring to think about being a carrier of this light—to recognize that I was once in darkness, but am now in the light of the Lord and must live as a child of this light (Ephesians 5:8).
On this Christmas Eve, as I light my candle and pass it on to my neighbor at church—as I’ve done year after year, for as long as I can remember—I will think about what it means to be a son of light. I’ll think of it when I’m holding my baby niece by the Christmas tree, pointing out the twinkling lights and angel ornaments. I’ll think about it if it snows (please Kansas, give me some snow!), waking up to that particularly bright color of light reflected on the purest of icy white.
Or I’ll think about it by looking up at the cold night and focusing on a star, thinking about how Jesus probably saw the same star too. Jesus who walked on the same planet that I do. Jesus who was God incarnate. God who made the stars and said “Let there be light” in the first place.