One Candle to Another

Dec. 24, 2023

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds….”  – Matthew 16:4

“Kind of strange, isn’t it?

Pastor John Burden stood at the front of the sanctuary holding a small, brass lantern.

Our sixth and seventh grade students filed into the sanctuary for morning chapel.

“This little flame has opened so many doors,” he continued, cradling the protected candle. “Created opportunities I never could have imagined—conversations, new friendships, travel.  Possibly more than anything in my 20 years of ministry.”

One single flame….

Not just any flame. Power in its story. Three weeks prior an Austrian child walked into the grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel and lit a candle from the perpetual flame—burning continuously for over a 1000 years. Transported to Tel Aviv, the flame was placed on a plane to Vienna where clergy and lay people waited—holding lanterns and candles to light and carry to their parishes and communities throughout Europe.

One single flame…multiplying….crossing borders.

Next, the flame boarded Austrian Air to JFK Airport in New York where Pastor John, clergy peers, Boy Scouts, and civic leaders lit their lanterns with the original flame. A few days later Pastor John was driving the flame 2.5 hours—from Pompton Lakes, NJ to Camden—to share. Our enthralled students eagerly listened to his story of its journey. Light spreading from Bethlehem to Camden. Seems improbable, doesn’t it? Yet Christmas is full of improbabilities.

While speaking to a Jewish audience many years ago, Jesus shared some startling words: “You are the light of the world.”  Most his listeners assumed God was the light. Torah was the light. Israel was the light. Those beliefs were affirmed by local synagogues. But Jesus flipped the script and unequivocally says, You are the light. Ordinary people now have the capacity to embody and reflect God’s light. You. Me. A child in Camden.

Of course, those words were spoken before Ben Franklin harnessed electricity, or Thomas Edison created the carbon-filament light bulb. Typically poor, most of Jesus’ listeners could hardly afford oil for their lanterns. Fire was shared stick to stick. Neighbor to neighbor. Village to village. As light was passed each sunset, those nocturnal middle eastern skies slowly lost their dominance to warm, glowing camp fires and make-shift torches.  Light beat back darkness through sharing.

Franciscan brother and friend Richard Rohr writes, “We must all hope and work to eliminate darkness, especially in many of the great social issues of our time… But at a certain point, we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive light and spread light…

That’s our question, right? How do we receive light and spread light?  Worth pondering. Especially at this moment in history.

Our world feels a little dark right now. Not sure if it’s just me. Scrolling my news feed or reading the newspaper, it’s easy to feel like darkness is winning—light being extinguished in front of us.

But every generation confronts darkness of some kind. Nothing new here. It’s part of the human condition. Best we accept that fact and begin thinking how we might receive and spread God’s light—just as others have done before us. And those light-spreaders are out there. I meet them regularly. I witness the radiance of their love, generosity and hope in the most despairing of conditions. It’s infectious.

My favorite Christmas Eve services always involve candles. Sanctuary lights are turned off. My surrounding family shrouded in darkness. A single candle is lit at the podium. Hundreds of eyes riveted on one small flame. Mesmerizing is its solitary power and magnetic pull. And then the light is passed. One candle to another. One row to the next—until everything is revealed with illuminating light. I now see my neighbor’s smile. Tears fall down the cheeks of the people behind me. I wonder what they’re thinking. Then we sing and those familiar words bolster my heart…

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

At this moment, I’m reminded God’s true light was birthed into a darkened manger centuries ago. One baby. One life. One flame. But God’s light didn’t stay in one place. Those daring to open their hearts to this child continue passing that light from person to person, generation to generation. Receive. Spread. That gives me hope.

Bruce Main
President and Founder