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Light a Candle

December 3, 2012


On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, Clare and I attended the Taize worship at St. Christopher Episcopal Church.  The dark sanctuary was illuminated by a multitude of candles.  The warm glow, the sacred music, and the quiet prayers were a good beginning to this season of light.

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts toward a faint light in the distance that grew brighter as he approached its source, a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family who offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man: a chair by the fireplace and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

Also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, the days of Hanukkah are celebrated each evening by Jewish families lighting candles in a menorah, a candelabra with nine candles. 

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, was a harsh and cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the temple, and the scrolls of the Torah were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the temple, committing what the book of Daniel refers to as the abomination of desecration.  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to their faith.

Three years later, under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and his band of four brothers, known by their family name as the Maccabees, liberated Jerusalem. They entered the temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one Antiochus had desecrated.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing the presence of God in the temple. However, the available supply of consecrated olive oil needed to keep the light burning would last only one day.  By Jewish law, consecrating new oil would require more than a week. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper, known as the servant candle, is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night all candles are burning.

Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. This year the Jewish observance occurs the second week of Christian Advent, December 8 through December 16, 2012.

For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. For Christians, the celebration of Christmas also includes symbols of light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles of an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

In 1973, Clare and I moved our family to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was in that good place that we learned about the Moravians, whom church historians regard as the first Protestants. The denomination originated in Czechoslovakia around 1415. Started by a Catholic priest named John Hus, the fledging group became a persecuted church until they found refuge on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.  They moved across the border from Moravia to Zinzendorf’s property, thus giving them the name Moravians.

The Moravians made their way from Czechoslovakia to Germany to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A contingent settled in Salem, North Carolina, on 10,000 acres known as Wachovia.  Today many of the area attractions preserve the history of these settlers and educate visitors about their origins and influence. Our family adopted several of the Moravian traditions while we lived in Pfafftown, north of Winston-Salem.

A Moravian star is the very first Christmas decoration to appear at our home. I usually hang it on our front porch the Friday after Thanksgiving where it remains until Epiphany. From the beginning of Advent until the Day of Epiphany, our Moravian star represents the light that pointed the way to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Eve candlelight service, sometimes called a Moravian love feast, features the serving of Moravian coffee and a sweet roll. Each worshiper receives a beeswax candle, trimmed in fireproof red paper, that serves as a reminder of the gift of light in a season of darkness.

An Advent wreath is another way to mark the approach of Christmas. Four candles are arranged on a table in a circular wreath.  Each Sunday during Advent, a new candle is lighted. The white Christ candle, placed in the center, is lighted on Christmas Day.

We enjoy several Advent wreaths in our home. Dr. Bob Cooper, a dear friend and fellow pastor, made one for us in his workshop. Constructed from simple wooden blocks, the sturdy wreath is at the center of our breakfast table. Another wreath, handmade by Sid Luck, a potter in Seagrove, North Carolina, graces our dining room table.

From the time our children were preschoolers, we have displayed a wreath that we purchased in Old Salem on a table in our foyer.  We found the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon lifted a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created entirely out of cornhusk doll Nativity figures.

Each Sunday in Advent we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the appropriate candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. After reading a Scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace, we sang a Christmas carol.

As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures was on fire!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the flaming wreath and started to dash toward the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I stopped in my tracks, turned on my heels, and detoured to the guest bathroom just across the hall. I jerked back the shower curtain, dropped the wreath into the tub, turned on the faucet, and doused the flames with water.

The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned to a crisp. A few were charred but still recognizable.

To this day, we display a wreath with the manger scene of cornhusk figures. Some of them are replacements, and others are scorched survivors of the fire. I have reworked the wreath. The paper Moravian star has been replaced. We still have candles on the wreath, but, for obvious reasons, we never light them. The figures singed in the fire are a reminder of God’s protection.

Whatever your holiday traditions may be, the wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice for this season of light: “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, be careful with those candles!

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2012

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