December 24/25, 2020
(Isaiah 9:1-6; Luke 2:1-14)
Tonight/Today will be a milestone I would just as soon not remember. It will be the first time in the last 19 years of being the pastor at this parish that I have not celebrated Midnight Mass with a congregation. Sad, to say the least, but understandable. I guess the Blessed Lord will forgive me.
It is in the Midnight Mass that the processional with the baby Jesus is led by candlelight. Last year we were able to celebrate with the lighting of individual candles for the congregation, as it was the first time we did not have carpeting in the church, and thus a safer surface for candle wax. So, this too will be missed.
Many years ago, I fell in love with the tradition of setting candles in windows. My parents were very much Christmas people – at least from the secular point of view. Decorations and festivities for Christmas were always large scale. It is a tradition I carry on to this day. I was actually so excited to have a nice house to decorate again. The last time I had a house large enough to decorate to the ninth degree was while living in Louisiana. And so today, my back and legs will tell you that my roof has some lights – modern day candles. Not Griswold style, but many all the same.
My mother had a large collection of Christmas candles fashioned as figurines of various Christmas theme. Of course, we didn’t burn these, we merely made a Christmas scene much like people do with the village scenes today. Some were quite old and others not so much. As time goes by, the candles sitting in boxes in the shed over multiple summers tend to get misshapen, and so new ones are purchased. She also used to handmake some beautiful Christmas candles herself. A craft, that as a child, didn’t interest me, but now I wish I paid attention to.
When I was younger, we had these candelabra like displays with those little C-7 orange light bulbs in them. Of course, not every window had outlets beneath, but that wasn’t something extension cords could not solve. Modern variations of these are not as plentiful to purchase, nor as well displayed in people’s homes, however they comfort me all the same.
As a youth, I remember how dark hills and roads with houses were lit by a surprising number of such candles, winking warmly at strangers and passersby along the way. I never forgot that feeling of welcome and glowing hope at such a dark time of year, and I have been a devoted user of window candles ever since.
Legend traces the tradition back to Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay, as well as to the star that leads the Magi on a long journey through a strange country. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel as though I am also journeying through strange country, every single day in a Covid-19 laced world. Maybe feeling the same way, many folks on social media have talked about putting up their Christmas decorations earlier than usual this year, and so they did. I have seen some up on houses here for a couple months now. These decorations help against the gloom, whether it’s the shorter days, the chaos of the news, or the loneliness of ongoing social distancing fatigue. This year, decorations feel like an act of resistance.
Gloom is not foreign to the nativity story. Scripture tells us Jesus’ birth was a time not only of joy and welcome but of fear, violence, and catastrophe. We tend not to focus on those bits as we hear the story read in church. “No room at the inn” is often played as comedy rather than as a stomach-churning situation for a pregnant mother and a father. We dodge the presence of Augustus Caesar, the emperor looming in the background, or his ruthlessness and absolute power over the Roman Empire and its people. We brush by King Herod, his threats, the massacre of the Holy Innocents, and the flight to Egypt.
This year, however, all these grim and terrible plot turns are what get my attention. They sound less like the plot of a fairy tale, or a news report from another country, or what we used to call a “biblical” scenario (read fantastically unrealistic), and more like current and near-possible events. What I thought was a “civilized” nation seems to no longer be so, and now sounds more biblical (fantastically unrealistic) the past year in particular. Some protests have been less than civilized the past few months. And somehow, for me, this is heartening—because I need even more to know and feel that Jesus is with us, that these sorts of events are not shocking to God, as so much that seemed unbreakable has broken apart in our country.
The tradition of window candles should remind us of the old proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I think of Midnight Mass, and a singular candle processing in, lighting everyone’s personal candle as it signifies the Light of Christ entering the world of darkness. And I think, of course, of our Christmas reading from Isaiah 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” but also one that is not a reading for tonight from John 1, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Setting out lights and decorations this year, is proclaiming the power and love of Christ, which we must try hard to continue to put our trust in. We need to feel hope. Not in the sense of having a good attitude or looking on the bright side, but hope as holding fast to the deep-down belief that God’s love is stronger than evil, violence, and death. Hope is also an action verb. As Austin Channing Brown put it last summer on Twitter, “Black folks connect hope to duty, legacy, the good fight. . . . The freedom movement can’t survive on optimism; there’s too much to mourn.”
So, I’ve placed (electric) candles in my windows instead of cursing the darkness, but that’s not all I’ll do. Window candles do not change policy, rebuild government, feed the hungry, or protect the vulnerable. But symbols and decorations have power, nonetheless. They can be prophetic tokens of resistance, inspiration to keep on keeping on, and a shield against despair.
In the Gospel of John, the most esoteric of the four Gospels, Christ commonly refers to Himself as the light and he asks His followers to walk in the light.
But in our dark times we may wonder: Why is Light (Christ) essential? Why must we seek the Light? What Difference does Light make?
In Many ways, we are aware that our dark times of doubt and despair become comfortable places. We may even grow to depend upon these down times, believing that they are insurmountable. And the longer we walk in dark places, the more distant the light can seem. We may even arrive at a place where the light itself is but a distant memory, or we may come to believe that it doesn’t exist at all.
Our journey that we take during Advent leading to Christmas reminds us that we cannot take the light for granted when Christmas does arrive. Christ is near, and God partners with us, makes covenant with us, and asks us to respond to the light that has come into the world. We may not have to move far, but God does ask us to move, to be bold enough to step out on faith and seek the light.
Even if we are in a dark place this season, Christ reminds us that we can be “children of the light.” Our faith – the expressions of our faith in word and in deed – does make a difference. When Christ is with us, we discover that the light has dawned!
We need the light of Christ most desperately. I encourage everyone to light a candle today. Like the old slogan of a motel commercial, we leave the light on for you; let us leave the light on for Jesus. Jesus will come to the door with the candle. He will come to the house that acknowledges the Light of Christ. He will come to the door and knock. Will you open the door for the Light of the World, or leave Him in the cold and darkness?
My prayer for this Christmas is that we all will feel and see the Light of the Christ Child in such a real way, that He helps the candle of each soul to bring His Light to others. It is a sad and bleak year to be sure, but when we put this aside ever so momentarily and light our candles, we glimpse the peace of God. I have about 400 lights on the roof and a few more on my windows and tree inside, in addition to the candelabras in the windows. I wait inside, near my Grandfather’s manger set, praying to the infant Jesus to fill us all with His light. It is then that the miracles of Christmas take place.
May God Bless you all and have a most Blessed Christmas! +++
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA
We are beggars – As the epidemic continues (and even increases again) we continue to need your help. The virus keeps people away and thus donations are down, and bills pile up and insurances are being canceled! Please help, if you can, to keep our ministry alive and vibrant so that there is a place for the those needing respite from a troubled world! God Bless You +++