Our Advent discipline was to turn off anything electrical or electronic that gave light (no computers or cell phones especially) at 8 in the evening and spend the remaining hour before bed by the light of candles and oil lamps. Four weeks, give or take, living as our ancestors did has given me a new appreciation of candles—so you can imagine my delight at hearing the Basilica parish will have a Candlemas procession this year.
I first encountered Candlemas as a celebration while visiting Holy Family parish in Glendale (I make my Southern California business trips in winter, thank you very much; summer is too hot). I was at the early morning mass when the lector brought out a huge box and placed it to the side of the altar. I looked around and noticed that many of the people in the parish had lugged candles with them, large and small. I suppose I was vaguely aware of the term Candlemas, but not of its reality, not having experienced it even in my high Anglican past.
At the end of mass, the box—now revealed to be full of candles—was brought forward, the contents (and the candles in the pews) blessed, and the priest handed the long, thin tapers to the faithful in attendance. As I was leaving, a little Filipino woman smiled and told me, “Candlemas candles are special. You save that for some time you are praying for something really hard. It helps.”
I burned that candle more than a year later. By that time it had warped from the heat and cracked in a couple of places, but still stood upright in a jar of sand. I lit it when I prayed for a friend in anguish over her daughter and let it burn like the candles in church until it consumed itself in its own fire.
That’s the image of candles: using its very self for fuel, it burns until it is consumed. It’s a metaphor for the Christian life and one reason I so dislike the oil candles we now use in our churches. They may provide the requisite flame and the oil is consumed, but the image is lost—the candle never changes. If fire is a both metaphor and reality for the Christian life, an unchanging candle is an incomplete image…the burning bush of God's presence notwithstanding. We are meant to spend and consume ourselves, in the words of a favorite prayer of mine, as fellow laborers with Christ and we do it with the fire of faith and love.
Living with candles made me realize how deep and rich that image is. Our candles were of various shapes and sizes, scattered strategically around the rooms. Because of size and composition, they burned at different rates and we were always having to attend to the business of trimming wicks and replacing them as they burned down. Perhaps light that does not require our attention and concern is not light at all but illusion.
One candle in particular was my favorite, a taper lodged in a barley-twist candlestick on the mantelpiece. When it was first lit, it illuminated the entire room because it was so tall. But as it burned, its light shifted and it was interesting to watch the illumination and shadows change as it burned down. The flame never changed, but by the end, the light was focused in the area right around the candle because it had grown so small. So it is with our fervor, I think, changing over time, illuminating first this, then that, ultimately focused on those closest to us who watch it until the flame dies out.
With so many candles it, it was quite light, but the light was different, softer, warmer, more conducive to cuddling on the couch than being active and so we did. Winter is a time for settling in and for reflection. Night used to signal the end of the day’s activities; we moderns have turned our lives into an endless, artificial day, full of light that lacks warmth and imposes demands, keeping us from stopping to recollect ourselves and find peace.
This morning, iced in by an unexpected snow, I lingered in our little oratory before heading to the upstairs study to start work on a book project whose deadline looms. Hoping against hope that we could get out, my groom and I had arisen at our customary 5 AM, only to find the roads impassible, so it was still dark as I walked down the hall. Instead of turning on the lights, I brought with me a tiny sandalwood votive, to carry my prayers for inspiration as I write.
I was surprised at how much light it gave off when held at the level of my outstretched hand. There was more than enough light to make my way to my destination with enough left over to have some sense of that was around me.
Candlemas, candles, the Christian life. More than enough to show the way with enough left over to illumine the rest of the world, show our light to others and others to us, even with a small candle, even in the pitch-dark. Especially in the pitch-dark.
By the way, that Canldemas candle and those prayers? Answered in a way I could never have expected in the usual convolutions of God working in a broken world. But then, aren’t prayers always answered that way? Perhaps the candle just provided the light for me to see it all, however dimly, warm and in peace.