Christmas Eve has always been a magical time. As a child, it was a time of excitement and great anticipation. (What toys will Santa bring? What will be in my stocking? What could be in that package?) As an adult, it can be exhausting and even stressful, with preparation and endless "to do" lists, threatening to overshadow what the season is all about.
But Christmas Eve always brings it home. Always.
I grew up with a pastor who also happened to be my Dad. There are some things that my Dad just does better than anyone else. And one of them is Christmas Eve.
Like most churches, ours would have a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Lighting the Christ candle happened at the very end of the service. When the time came, all lighting in the sanctuary would go dark, and the room would go silent. The only light was the warm glow of four candles on the Advent wreath. Those four candles represent hope, peace, joy, and love.
In this moment -- the culmination of the Christmas Eve service -- my Dad did something surprising. He spoke of darkness. Yes, darkness. A whole world filled with darkness. He described a very broken world, where broken people strayed away from God. A world where people hurt and oppressed others. A world of pain and suffering. As he spoke, he began to snuff out the candles, one by one. No hope. No peace. No joy. From the last remaining candle, he would light the wick of the candle-lighter in his hands, and he snuffed out the last candle. No love.
Only one flame left in the room. A room of almost complete darkness.
The next words were about God's eternal love for us. A love so strong that it could overwhelm all of this darkness. A love that was embodied in the sending of God's only son, Jesus, to bring light to this dark and broken world. With those words, the Christ candle came to life. There was still only one flicker of light in the room, but now it was the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath. Then came these poetic and beautiful opening words from the book of John (1:1-5):
Hearing these words and seeing the solitary glow of the Christ candle was always the moment for me. This was when Christmas came. A vivid representation of the light that God sent into the world. The light that shines in the darkness. The light so powerful that the darkness cannot overcome it.
Then the light multiplied. God's love and the sending of His son made love possible again. Then joy, and then peace, and then hope. With each word, the candles on the advent wreath again gave light. Faces could now be seen in the sanctuary, even from far away.
Next came an illustration and a calling, from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, "You are the light of the world." (Matthew 5:14) And Jesus calls us to "let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16) With that, the light that had originated from the Christ candle was passed forward, and we were asked to watch what happens when we choose to be the light of the world. Watch how this room fills with light as we spread the love of Christ and share the light that God brought forth into the world. As candles sparkled through the congregation, we sang the familiar words of Silent Night and Joy to the World!
The sanctuary was now fully lit with candlepower -- and love, joy, peace, and hope. After the last stanza of Joy to the World!, my Dad would repeat those words from the first chapter of John: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." He asked us to look around to room to see how much light can come from a single flame. To see how much the light spreads and multiplies -- and how the darkness recedes -- when we choose to share the light with others all around us. The benediction included a celebration of Christmas, but it also focused on the calling to be the light of the world. A calling to go and take the love of Christ into this broken world, and let our lights shine.
My hope and prayer for all of us is that we not let the darkness overcome the light within each one of us. May we each bring light into this world -- in this coming year and always.
Merry Christmas to all of you.