2020 Christmas Message from Bishop Russell
THE LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS
Sometimes it is not until something is out of place or missing that we realize how meaningful it has become to us. Earlier this year I showed up at a church to participate in a funeral. I arrived early enough to make sure everything was in place, and all of us knew our roles. As I was checking my list, I realized that the Paschal Candle was missing. So, I asked about it, and thus began a churchwide search for the Paschal Candle.
I was a bit surprised by my reaction that the missing candle provoked. I was unaware that the Paschal Candle had become such a significant symbol for me. I am not sure when, where or how that happened. I do know that early on in my ordained ministry I picked up a custom of beginning The Burial of the Dead with a greeting that goes something like this:
“We gather under the light of this fire. It’s called the Paschal Candle. This candle is lit at three times in the Episcopal Church. First, it is lit on Easter to signify the victory of God’s life over death, that the light of God’s love is stronger than the darkness of death. Secondly, it is lit at every baptism to signify that the light of our life is united with the light of Christ. Finally, it is lit at all funeral to signify that though we can no longer see the one we love, we trust that the light of their life burns forever within the eternal embrace of God’s love.”
With what I am about to say, you might think I am confusing my holy days. I’m not. I have been thinking a lot about the Paschal Candle this year because of verses from the Gospel of John that we hear every year at Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.” John 1:1-5
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Because of that announcement, I am wondering aloud with you if we should not also light the Paschal Candle at Christmas. [To be clear, this is not a pastoral directive to do so. It is a pastoral reflection.] After all, this is the candle that signifies what John declares. It represents the Light that shines in the darkness. This candle represents the hope of Israel. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” Isaiah 9:2
We have spent much of 2020 in the darkness, the darkness of death, despair, defeat, depression, disillusionment. It is palpable. We yearn for Light. The most common question about worship that I have been asked in the last month is about singing Silent Night by candlelight while observing our protocols.
I am confident this yearning is, in part, born from a desire for normalcy. However, I also believe that there is something mystical and sacred about lighting candles in the darkness. So, let’s light a candle or two or twelve this Christmas of 2020. When you do, let’s remember that this is the very same Light of eternal absolute love that shines in the face of a baby, and one day will shine in the darkness of the tomb. This light cannot and will not be extinguished.
And, let us recommit to carrying this Light into the world, holding it especially for those who are still walking in the darkness. In the words of a poem by Howard Thurman:
I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
Merry Christmas. As we once again welcome the light of Christ into the world in the birth of Jesus, may the eternal absolute fire of God’s love shine in your soul, drive away the darkness, warm your heart, and enkindle in you a renewed desire to shine in the darkness. Yes, let us light candles this Christmas. And let us dare to allow that very Light to be enkindled in us.