“Silent Night. Holy Night.”
The Christmas Eve candle lighting service has always been one of my favorite observances of the Christian liturgical year. Of course, like everyone else those quiet moments when we are first lighting the candles one by one and row by row seems to fill us with a soft expectation. And the darkness of the night being pierced by dozens (or hundreds) of flickering lights seems to give our souls hope for humanity as the light of Christ pierces the darkness of evil.
As a pastor, however, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service was always my favorite because as I looked out upon the congregation there were familiar faces and people that were new to me. With the exception of Easter it was the one service when I felt like our worship was as attractive to the community as it was to our members.
Much of what we do on Sundays can be difficult to translate to the larger community. Memorized prayers and responses, passing of the peace, and talk about “body and blood.” But, not so, with the Christmas Eve candle lighting service. Something about lighting candles in the dark while singing Silent Night speaks to all of us. Light and fire seem to point to a more universal language.
Secular and spiritual, the faithful and the skeptical all love to sit and watch fire burn. Rock concerts often end with an invitation for thousands of people to ignite their lighters and sway back and forth. Even the language of romance knows that dinner by candlelight is better than dinner by spotlight.
The language of sacred space. Creating environments for the soul to find softness. Nurturing an atmosphere of gentleness and goodness. Appealing to the heart more than to the mind.
This is one thing we in the church seem to get right at least once a year. On Christmas Eve we tone it down a few notches. We invite people to look inward. We abandon big and splashy for soft and silent. We preach less and reflect more.
And people come. Strangers ask, “Are you doing a candlelight service again this year? Can we bring our whole family? It wouldn’t feel like Christmas without the candle lighting service.”
I remember being drawn to this magical night as well as a teenager. On the three Christmas Eve’s after I learned to drive I doubled up on my Christmas Eve experiences. After our Presbyterian service concluded I drove to our local Catholic parish where their service was even more shrouded in mystery and ritual. I didn’t understand everything that was taking place and I couldn’t keep up with when I was supposed to kneel and when to stand, but I remember how much I yearned for and enjoyed the sacred mystery of this service. There too we lit candles, sang Silent Night, and prayed in a language that only my heart recognized.
Is this not what so much of our culture yearns for these days? Advertising blasts at us all day. Deadlines keep us pushing. Our self-worth is based on how much we do, how much we produce. We seem to want to outshout each other to get attention. We push, push, push—so much so that many people say they don’t come to church on Sunday because they need a day of rest! Silent, soulful rest.
I remember many years ago doing a community survey of the neighborhood around the church where I was serving. We gave them a list of twenty things to rank of what they might want in the church. I was surprised when number two on the list was “We wish the church could be open 24 hours a day.” In follow up conversations I discovered that many people wanted a silent place to come and sit and pray and listen to soothing music and light a candle on their time—on the way to work, during a lunch break and even late at night.
It just makes me wonder. Are we supposed to be doing more be attractive to the people around our churches? Or are we supposed to be doing less? Are we supposed to preach better? Or are we supposed to just make room for silence?
Sometimes lighting a candle and singing about a silent night is more than enough for those yearning for a taste of the divine.
“Silent Night. Holy Night.” Nothing else may be needed.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades