When I was a little girl, my special task in our Christmas preparations was to put together our Swedish Angel Chimes. Without belaboring a description, the Angel Chimes use the breeze created by four small candles at its base to make a circle of angels spin. When the angels spin, little metal pingers (that's a technical term) tap two cymbal like bells. When they do you hear, "ding, ding, ding." I loved them. I loved that it was my job to put them together, and I did so with methodical dedication. I loved the special red candles that my mother kept on hand just for them. My mother is a candle loving person, so we had candles of all shapes, varieties and colors in our house all year long. But at Christmas our house became a fairy wonderland of red and white candles.
I've been thinking a lot about candles these last few days. Today is my daughter's 15th birthday. I sound like the typical aging parent when I say this, but I truly cannot believe that 15 years have passed since this beautiful, smart, unique, quirky, funny, creative, determined little person graced our lives. So not only am I thinking about the various Christmas candles that still need to be placed around my house, I'm also thinking about birthday candles. From Phoebe's first birthday -- when she wasn't sure what to do with the cupcake placed in front of her, much less the single candle stuck in it -- to now, she has done what all of us do on our birthdays; blow out her growing number of candles and make a wish. I hope that at least some of the wishes she's made over the last 15 years have come true. I hope at least some of the wishes she makes from now on will be realized as well.
As I've been anticipating this day and thinking about candles, I've also thought about their uses and their purpose in our lives. Yes, candles do have a purpose. We use them for decoration, for wish making, for pragmatic purposes. It's always good to have candles on hand if and when the power goes out. As a budding teen I so wanted the three way makeup mirror that was popular at that time. There was a light setting for daylight, office light and evening. The evening mimicked candlelight, which is the best light for a romantic evening. I dreamed of the day when I would be able to wear makeup applied specifically for an evening graced by the light of candles.
We also use candles as symbols. They are lit in memory. They are lit in prayer. Last night, the families and friends of the victims of last year's school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut lit candles. A candle in memory of every child and adult lost. A candle lit in memory of the last night those families would still have their loved ones. I suspect that as each candle was lit, there were wishes made as well. Wishes that this senseless, useless loss had never happened. That would be my wish. That would be my prayer.
Candles are a large part of our religious celebrations. Each week the tall candles that sit on the communion table at the front of my church's sanctuary are lit at the beginning of the worship service. They serve as a reminder and as a symbol of God's light in the world. In some churches I've served, the candles are ritually extinguished at the end of the service. Before the last candle is put out, the flame is transferred back to the large candlelighter and carried out of the church. God's light going back into the world.
While so many of us speak of this time as Christmas or the holidays, in my Christian tradition it is Advent. During Advent we add more candles to our worship with our Advent wreath. Unlike wreaths that hang on doors or walls, our's rests on a tall stand. Four candles stand in its circle, with a large white candle in the middle. The four tapers represent Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. The white candle is the Christ Candle, lit on Christmas Eve.
Lighting the candles each week is a ritual. It is tradition. It is symbolic. It adds to the general ambience and beauty of the service. But this year, more than ever, I see the lighting of these candles as proclamation. These aren't just symbols of hope, peace, love and joy. There are our way of proclaiming that the reasons for all exist. They are proclamation that we stick to our fervent belief that the darkness will not overcome the light. As this first anniversary of Newtown arrives, and as we remember far too many sad anniversaries of tragedy, it is easy to believe that the darkness of this world -- the hatred, the brokenness, the fear, the loss -- is too powerful to be overcome. But we light candles, in Advent wreaths and in rituals, in memory, in celebration, in joy and in sorrow because the light still pierces the darkness.