Lighting the Candle of Fellowship
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve (at the 8:00 Choral Service), December 24, 2016
When I was a child, I was an acolyte. As an acolyte, it was my responsibility to light the candles for worship. Before the service began I would go to the ushers closet, take a candle lighter – like this one – from its hook on the wall, inspect the wax taper to be sure it was long enough (and replace it if it was not), and then meet my pastor by the sanctuary doors. When the organ prelude began, I would light the candle (with a little Bic lighter) and I would walk, side by side with my pastor, down the aisle. I was proud to walk beside my pastor, but learned to pay attention because there were so many ways for the candle to go out. I learned to walk with one hand cupped in front of the tiny flame lest the flame blow out, and the thumb of my other hand on this little lever here to push the wax taper up lest the flame be snuffed out. I would first light the Christ Candle on the communion table, and then the candles in the candelabras, much like these. During the service the acolyte had a reserved seat in the front pew.
At the end of the service, when the postlude began, I would come forward again and extinguish the candles in the candelabras with the bell, or candlesnuffer, working in reverse order, and then move back to the communion table. There, I would take the flame from the Christ Candle and bring it back to my taper before extinguishing the candle. And with my pastor I would walk the flame back down the aisle and out of the sanctuary.
This ritual was part of my experience of worship as a child. It shaped in me a sense of the sacred; that sensing the sacred required attention and care (and practice). How I entered the sanctuary mattered. If I entered worship to quickly or thoughtlessly, the candle would go out. If I paid attention too much attention to myself, or to others, or to others paying attention to me, I might forget to raise the taper, and the flame would go out. I must be on time, or something crucial would be lost.
I don’t remember what age I was when I began to feel uncomfortable with blowing out the taper after leaving the sanctuary. This flame, after all, had been a part of our worship, had helped the entire congregation focus on why we were together – gathered together. We hoped that God would meet us, speak to us, guide us, comfort and challenge us – hopes as fragile as the flame. Simply blowing it out felt wrong, until, one day, I realized that we were to bear this light in our lives when we left the sanctuary.
Christmas is the feast of incarnation – the story of God becoming flesh. Athanasius, an early church father, put it this way: God became human so that humans can become God. But the Gospel of John actually says flesh – the Word became flesh – rather than merely human. And by flesh, John meant to include all of life, all material life, in Christ’s scope of salvation; all of nature is encompassed in God’s wide embrace. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”
Luke emphasizes that God becoming flesh shows us Emmanuel, God-with-us, as one-of-us. But the incarnation also shows us ourselves, as we can be, and we should be, as we were meant to be. Each of us, one life amidst life – and death – but decidedly on the side of life, abundant.
In John’s gospel, light becomes the metaphor for God-with-us, especially in the darkest times. Receiving Jesus, the light of the world, and bearing our light, not hiding it under a bushel, is the movement of salvation. The light is God’s love which meets the world’s suffering, which comprehends and rights injustice. It is love which we receive from outside but which becomes real as we trust that love, emulate that love, and walk together in love.”
Four weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, I printed the words of Howard Thurman on the top of the bulletin, and they remained throughout each of our Sundays of preparation. They are there tonight. Thurman was the black pastor of one of the first intentionally interracial congregations in the country. While Thurman has many famous poems and writings, there was a passage I came across when reading his book The Mood of Christmas that struck me, the acolyte. He writes,
I will light the candle a fellowship this Christmas. I know that the experiences of unity in human relations are more compelling the concepts, the fears, the prejudices, which divide. Despite the tendency to feel my race superior, my nation the greatest nation, my faith the true faith, I must beat down the boundaries of my exclusiveness until my sense of separateness is completely involved in a sense of fellowship. There must be free and easy access by all, to all the rich resources accumulated by groups and individuals in years of living and experiencing. I will light the candle of fellowship this Christmas, a candle that must burn all the year long.
In other words, the light of this night must burn brightly all year. This night of quiet reflection before the great mystery of life and love and joy and peace, must extend into our living, our discipleship, our following and following up. We must follow the light, follow up on this night, by bringing light to the world.
This past Tuesday I participated in a Christmas Vigil organized by my colleague The Rev. Sarah Henkel and the Community of Living Traditions at Stony Point Center. During the service members of the community reflected on the last couple of years and spoke about finding hope in Black Lives Matter movement; love in the Standing Rock and Split Rock struggles for indigenous sovereignty and our common earth; joy is lighting candles and lifting voices at protests for farmworker rights; and true peace in the community and fellowship formed through working for the common good. We ended out time together by singing Silent Night, and then transitioning into “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
The vigil allowed us to collect energy through fellowship and reflection because bearing God’s light in the world is not an easy task. It requires courage and commitment.
Thirty years ago, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, an order of the Pretoria regime forbid the singing of Christmas carols in the Black townships because they stirred up such energy and hope. A newspaper report quoted a South African police agent as saying: “Carols are too emotional to be sung in a time of unrest…Candles have become revolutionary symbols.” And so they were outlawed. The term “silent night” took on an ominous new meaning as the carols were silenced and the candles extinguished.
The Rev. Allan Boesak, Reformed pastor in South Africa asked, “Why is it a crime to light a candle? We teach our children that it symbolizes hope and love. This has been a Christian tradition since the beginning of the church.” But bearing light and holding hope in dark times is revolutionary.
Boesak, speaking at an outlawed candlelight service said the church would not be silenced or intimidated into acquiescence. “The church is persecuted because it stands up for truth and justice and for the weak,” he said. “As long as this church exists in this place, we shall preach the word of God as truthfully as we can.” Amen?
The darkness of the hate and violence and oppression in our world makes us fearful, angry, uncertain. And the candle in our hand seems very small, indeed insufficient against the terror of the darkness all around. But none of us bears this light alone. We are not individual acolytes out in the vast night, each with our little light, flickering. We bear God’s light together. This congregation is a place of sanctuary where we are strengthened together as a church and where we join with others in our community and our world to enlarge that light. Even as we hoist our little light our own path is enlightened by the light born by those around us. And if our candle should falter we take heart. Because are surrounded by a veritable host of lights that will ignite and relight the way.
Jesus Christ, light of the world, promises and provokes. Christ heals and hastens us toward each other. May we bear the light of love from this sanctuary into our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our community, and our world. May we dare to walk together, to depend on one another, and to extend our hand to our neighbor. May we walk in the light, that beautiful light. May we receive and share that light and may it abound!
 See the essay by eco-womanist Karen Baker-Fletcher in Constructive Theology: A Contempoary Approach to Classical Themes, edited by Serene Jones and Paul Lakeland. Fortress Press, 2005.
 Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas. (Richmond, 1973). p. 19.
 “South Africa Cracks Down on Christmas.” (http://articles.latimes.com/1985-12-25/news/mn-21091_1_black-christmas). See also a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent by Bill Wylie-Kellerman (https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2016/11/29/advent-1-sermon/) from which I borrowed the fist two lines of this story.