The darkest night of the year…it’s coming up this week. It’s also the title of Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album. Check it out. For real.
When I was a little girl, I had a game with a friend of mine. Whenever we rode somewhere together near Christmas—together in the backseat, of course—we would count houses decorated for Christmas that we saw outside our sides of the car. The girl who counted the most decorated houses won. I don’t remember winning or losing, but I remember counting.
I still like driving or walking through neighborhoods with decorated houses. Those houses with the choreographed lights and music, or inflatable crèches (or Snoopy), or garish blinking lights seem a bit much, but I love being able to see a lighted tree through a front window, or strings of lights on the front of a house.
My favorite decoration, though, might be the electric window candles many houses put up for the holidays. There’s a farmhouse near my childhood home that has probably a dozen street-facing windows, and in December each one is illuminated with an electric candle.
I don’t know why I like those cheesy little candles so much. Maybe because they’re hard to do over-the-top. Maybe because they have a symbolic history of hospitality and welcome. Maybe just because they’re pretty.
Candles have long histories in religious usage. We light candles on the altar and beyond in TEC. Even at the liturgical (i.e. pseudo-Anglican) CRC I attended in undergrad we lit a Paschal candle. The Catholics light even more candles. All the Taizé services I’ve attended have been practically overrun with candles (and I love it). I often light a candle to pray.
What is this fixation with light and darkness? Why do we like candles so much?
The “Order of Worship for the Evening” in the ’79 BCP, a rite to introduce or replace evening prayer (etc.), is preoccupied with light and darkness. The first rubric is, “The church is dark, or partially so, when the service is to begin.” The Officiant’s greeting is, “Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Thanks be to God). Other parts of the service reflect this. The Phos hilaron is said/sung. If the service is done as a prelude to evening prayer/evensong, it’s followed by even more references to light and darkness.
Now, the Order of Worship for the Evening is pretty new, but consciousness of light and darkness is as old as humanity—it’s why even the ancienct pagans celebrated around the winter solstice. When it seemed like the world might end in darkness, a faint, almost unnoticeable turn came, and the world turned again toward the light.
I heard once about a town in Iceland, built under a cliff, that received no direct sunlight during the deepest winter days. Each year, when the sun is once again high enough to reach the town over the edge of the cliff, the people of the village gather outdoors for a communal pancake meal to celebrate the sun’s return.
The Christmas holidays are times of light, but they’re dark days for some. Loss hurts deeper this time of year; loneliness is lonelier; depression is more isolating. Peace and joy come harder to some than others. People are walking in darkness.
The ninth lesson from the Nine Lessons and Carols service—which my church put on last night; a lovely, lovely evening—comes from John 1. About the incarnation—the Word became flesh. “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.”
Supposedly, in utter darkness, a healthy human eye/brain could perceive candlelight from 30 miles away. Thirty miles.
Sometimes, the good tidings of great joy don’t seem like enough to stem the tide of the world’s darkness. How do we reconcile the messy, magnificent Incarnation with the evening news? But maybe we don’t need an apocalyptic fire—after all, even Jesus didn’t rise up and take earthly kingship like so many expected him to do.
Maybe all we need is one candle, lit in the window, piercing the darkness.
Where do you see light in darkness? Where do you light candles?