Vail Daily column: Flickering candles illumine the Christmas story | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Flickering candles illumine the Christmas story

Jack Van Ens

Sanctuary lights dim as a Christmas Eve’s Service of Carols ends. Holding shimmering candles, hushed worshippers encircle a sanctuary. Life’s veterans have burnt their now-fragile wicks. Youngsters in the circle are just beginning to shine in a world that often seems dark.

All begin to sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” with glowing candles in hand. Unlike a cell phone’s built-in light that illumines print on a dusky page, these candles shine but don’t penetrate the darkness.

More than stirring Christmas Eve sermons, more than rousing carols sung, more than children’s merriment — is the impact of flickering candles.

Why do lit candles go hand-in-hand with Christmas? They symbolize resilience that shines in life. Candle-holders’ eyes tear up. Hearts beat faster as flickering candles brighten shadowy paths ahead.

Because Thomas Jefferson’s convictions shone like a lit candle in a stormy world, former President Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1912: “Jefferson’s principles are sources of light because they are not made up of pure reason, but spring out of aspiration, impulse, vision and sympathy. They burn with the fervor of the heart.”

Christmas worshippers pack sanctuaries because they yearn to find light. Candlelight symbolizes two dynamics that furnish coping skills. Light helps us see what’s dark in life. Plus, light sparks hope to find a way through ruts and wrong turns.

I’ve gazed upon Jefferson’s statue in Paris. It stands on the Left Bank of the Seine River, across the street from the Musee d’Orsay, the museum featuring Impressionist paintings. Jefferson’s spirit of battling anti-democratic terror inspires Parisians’ hearts.

On Nov. 13, after terrorists blew up victims at cafes and attendees at a rock concert, survivors didn’t sink into shadows. They came to the sites of carnage. Visitors left flowers, sang the French National Anthem, knelt to pray, wrote notes of condolence and talked with their scared children who feared another terrorist’s attack.

Grieving French people lit candles at these sites. How did this defiant act shine against terrorism, chaos and the slaughter of innocent bystanders?

Lit candles help us cope when mayhem strikes. Their flicker braces people who search but don’t find tidy explanations for tragic events. Light’s glimmer helps relieve their frustration of not securing answers. We look for God in the midst of misery, but the divine seems like an AWOL soldier missing in action.

Anne Frank kept a diary that was her lit candle in a dark world. Hiding with family in Amsterdam, Anne got news from the outside about Nazi atrocities. She wrote, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”

When shadows make our paths difficult to see, we use light to find a way forward. We drive at night with headlights on to see ahead. Sea captains peer into fog to discover a lighthouse’s beam. Pilots use guide lights on airport runways to safely land.

After mayhem robs us of hope, we feel like a burnt candle. Transported in a cold boxcar to a Nazi concentration camp where she would die, Anne Frank’s goodness defined the diabolical scheme of exterminating Jews. Her decency made its mark when life is unfair and nasty.

The Christmas story tells of God making a journey on a dark path. Poet W.H. Auden in “For the Time Being” asks, “How could the Eternal do a temporal act/the Infinite become a finite fact?” Christmas announces that eternal God intersects the circle of our finite circumstances.

Christmas reminds us that God, like a human artist, walks in our shoes. H.A. Williams, who lectured at Trinity College in Cambridge, writes in his book “The True Wilderness” that “The artist, be he poet or painter or sculptor, has no option but to submit to the limitations of his medium. The necessities of rhythm constrain the poet; the flat surface of the canvas and the properties of pigment constrain the painter; the hardness of the stone constrains the sculptor.

“The artist uses such necessities as the very means whereby he achieves his artistic triumph — the poem, the picture, the sculpture. In submitting to necessity, the artist has conquered it and made it the vehicle of his creative freedom.”

God sculpted himself in human form. His poem sang of love for humanity. His portrait is reflected in a Hebrew baby named Jesus; meaning “God saves us.”

God’s appearance on earth is fragile, like a shimmering candle. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).

Riding on horseback toward Bethlehem in 1865, American preacher Phillips Brooks followed stars shining above an inky desert. This journey inspired him to write lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This carol pictures the hamlet where on “dark streets shines the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee (Jesus) tonight.”

Jesus shines as God’s light. His life lights candles within us. Reflect the light of hope this Christmas Day. Beat back darkness of hate and terror. Live in the light.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries.