KOH2RVA: Day 99

pink candleToday was the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.

A group of International students from VCU had been invited to light the Advent candle. They processed slowly down the aisle as the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang. They mounted the steps and gathered around the Advent wreath. They held the lit taper to the pink candle and we all watched and waited for the wick to catch flame.

It didn’t happen.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much suspense in church. I kept watching, willing the wick to catch. The student who was holding the taper seemed to have it in just the right place, but even so another student reached up to help. They adjusted the flame, moved it ever so slightly back and forth, but no matter what they did they couldn’t seem to get it to work. Finally, the song ended, and they had to step down from the chancel, the pink candle still unlit.

It seemed shockingly symbolic, that on a day when most of us were still grieving over the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the candle of joy wouldn’t stay lit, almost as if God himself were saying, “How can the flame of joy dance on its wick on a day like this?”

Maybe those students didn’t fail. Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, “No, not today.”

You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief. It comes when it comes. And it came today:

The Third Sunday of Advent.

Candle Aerobics?

971896384_b0882720e1I was a little nervous about the Christmas Eve service.

For weeks people had been asking me if we were going to do “candle aerobics,” and when I asked them what that meant they talked about the end of the service, where everyone is holding a lit candle.  They said that Dr. Flamming used to raise his candle and lower it during the singing of “Silent Night,” and everyone joined in.  It was especially meaningful, they said, when he raised it on that first verse, on the words “all is bright,” because the room really did become brighter as all those flames were lifted high.  “Candle Aerobics” was a tongue-in-cheek way of talking about something that had become a firm First Baptist tradition and they were wondering if I was going to continue it as the new pastor. 

I was certainly willing.  When I went to my last church they told me that during the annual Candlelight Carol Service I was supposed to walk down the aisle reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel (King James Version) accompanied by two small children holding candles, that this is the way it had “always” been done and also the way I should do it.  I didn’t argue.  For eight Christmases in a row I walked that aisle, reading that story, even when one very small child almost set the Bible on fire with her candle.

The problem for me wasn’t in doing “candle aerobics,” but in doing it correctly.  I asked Allen Cumbia if he could show me the video of a Christmas Eve service.  He had to go back to 2003 before he found one that had been videotaped, and then, as I sat there in the control room with him, he fast-forwarded to the end of the service, where the candles were being lit.  The room got darker, the candlelight brighter, and eventually everyone began to sing “Silent Night.”  Sure enough, right at the end of that first line, on the words “all is bright,” every candle in the room was lifted up.  It was beautiful.  But as they were lifted again on the next verse, and again on the verse after that, I saw where the nickname “candle aerobics” had come from.  As the camera panned the congregation I thought I saw a few people smirking, as if a beautiful tradition had become some kind of joke, and that’s when I made my decision.

At the end of the Christmas Eve service, 2008, the new pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church held his candle perfectly still all through the singing of “Silent Night,” right up until the last line of the last verse when he raised it in order to pronounce the benediction from John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word,” he said, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him.  Without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and this life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to conquer it.”

I don’t know how it felt to everyone else, but to see those candles held high as I talked about the unconquerable light of Christ?  Well, it felt just right to me.  I’m sure that when I’ve been doing it twenty years some people will smirk about it, calling it the “Statue of Liberty Benediction,” but I’m also sure that it won’t bother me at that point. 

I’ll let the new pastor come up with a tradition of her own.