On Christmas Eve we will be joining the congregation of Down Cathedral in Ireland for a candlelit carol service. The cathedral will be packed with people listening to the traditional service of nine lessons and carols. Everywhere there will be small log holders with candles and night lights; a health and safety nightmare and a source of anxiety for my wife who has a thing about candles and the risk of fire. I guess this springs from her years living on the top floor of a house over a pub, in the days when bars were smoke laden with customers’ cigarettes. Consequently, we have few candles in our home and the ones we have tend to be battery operated, which to my mind is eminently sensible but aesthetically not so pleasing.
I love producing and directing the Community’s Celtic Fire, telling the story of the early pioneers of the faith in Britain and the relevance of their spiritaulity today. We tell a range of stories in church and secular settings through music, storytelling, dance, drama, audio visuals and loads and loads of candles, real wax candles! I love it!
There’s a piece within me that loves fire; its warmth and light dispelling the cold and its flames extinguishing the darkness. I love the stove in my study and in idle moments I peer through the glass door and imagine scenes and stories that the fire makes with it’s burning coals or logs, just as I did as a youngster, sitting by the open fire in the room that we used at Christmas and other special occasions, like when people came to stay. It used to be the siting room in Whitley Bay but when we moved to Harrogate, it became known as the ‘lounge’!
Fire can of course be dangerous and destructive and its burning images are used to convey scenes of death, damnation and fear in apocalyptic writings and Religious art.
Its destructive nature has wreaked havoc for many lives and nations, wiping out whole communities and scorching the environment in its burning wake.
But it’s positive qualities and images can be life giving. Think of one of the sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life.
One of Graham Kendrick’s worship songs that I love has the line, Let the flame burn brighter, in the heart of the darkness, turning night to glorious day. And then there is Bernadette Farrell’s wonderful song, Christ be our light.
Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, at a Human Rights Day ceremony in 1961 lit a candle which was circled by barbed wire which has since become the society’s emblem. He declared, as he lit the candle, that it was, better to light a candle in the darkness than curse the dark.
Darkness has long been a metaphor for ignorance or evil. The Bible contains hundreds of references to darkness, referring either to the period of ignorance before the realisation of faith, (prior to seeing the light), death, or to the Devil (The Prince of Darkness). Followers of Christ are called to walk in the light …. put on the armour of light…..and let our light shine….
The death of Nelson Mandela recently brought South Africa once more to the attention of the world’s media. During the dark days of apartheid Christians used to light candles and place them in their windows as a prophetic sign declaring that one day the sectarian, racist evils of apartheid would be defeated. Darkness would be dispelled by light, justice would come, hatred would give way to peace through the doors of repentance and reconciliation. All over the country candles would be lit as signs of hope on behalf of people determined to end Apartheid. The ruling White Government, threatened by such a show of solidarity from the growing anti-apartheid movement passed a law banning lit candles in a window. A law making it illegal to place a lit candle in a window! It was an crime equal to owning a firearm. Owning a candle was considered as dangerous and as much a threat as a gun. It sound ridiculous but there was truth in the Ruling Party’s fears. The candle was mightier than the gun because what the candle represented was hope and hope will conquer despair and transform situations. Lighting a candle is making a statement, that carries the hope and vision that, one day, things will be different.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, a personal friend of Nelson Mandela, famously said during the Troubles in his country that, Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
Lighting a candle and offering a prayer is a powerful weapon against the evil and injustices of the world.
I will light a candle at the service and offer a prayer; for Northern Ireland that guns and bombs may find no returning place and that the fuels that feed terrorism here and everywhere in the world; fear, insecurity, injustice, poverty, inequality, ignorance, bigotry and sectarianism will be extinguished. With a lit candle before me I will also pray for Syria, Nigeria, Central African Republic and remember those, some of whom I know, who, through bereavement or loss of other kinds this year, enter this Christmas with darkness as their companion.
I remember lighting a candle and praying regularly over eighteen months for a close friend who was battling with disease. This time last year we sat together by Fenwick Lawson’s sculpture, the pieta in Durham cathedral and gave thanks to God for her healing and recovery. Lighting a candle and praying had been part of the accompaniment of journeying with someone whose life had been overshadowed by the darkness of cancer. We gave thanks and walked out into the crisp, cool but bright sunshine that diffused all darkness and mirrored the closing of a dark and difficult chapter in my friend’s life.
Whatever or whoever you pray for, light a candle this Christmas, not just to add atmosphere to your home but as a symbol of hope and healing. Whether battery operated or real fuse, light a candle this Christmas and offer a pray to the Christ who is the Light of the World.
Have a Blessed Christmas.