Christmas Eve Homily – The Christ Candle: When and Why?
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.
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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
I selected these passages to share a little history and perhaps a little revelation this Christmas Eve. I want to talk for a few moments about the when and why of the Christ Candle as it relates biblically and historically to our present-day Advent and Christmas worship. One of the most lasting and non-Jewish temporal gifts that the birth and living words of Jesus the Messiah gave to His first followers was the symbolic importance and eternal eternal significance of light. Although a small sample size, the passages we just read are the ongoing theme of the light and life of the coming King. The first Christ followers embraced this light and life theme and used it as central form of teaching as a reminder and encouragement to the explosive movement of Christianity and the persecution and difficulty that followed.
The earliest custom of Christ followers lighting symbolic candles dates all the way back to the first century and second-century. On the eve of the celebrated birth of Jesus the burning light in the window from a large single candle was used by believers as a symbol of the incarnate Christ, the light of the world. The candle would burn for the entire night to also symbolize lighting the way for Mary and Joseph as they traveled in the night, to the birthplace of Jesus. It also represented the star of Bethlehem (which we just witnessed for the first time in 800 years), which was incredibly foretold by the ancient prophets as a sign of the newborn Messiah and Savior, Christ the King. This is the historical origins of how and why the Christ and Advent Candles was started.
So, we know that long before there was 6th century penance paid, the 5th century mariology and deified saints prayed, and the actual 4th century formation of a Pope-led Roman Catholic Church, the first century forms of Advent candles were being lit by Christians in the weeks and days leading up to the presumed eve of Christs’ birth (another story for another day). The symbolic candles were meant to help new converts as well as the many persecuted believers to remember the promise of Jesus for His return for His followers (advent). The burning candles also represented the virtue of Jesus as the light of the world guiding His faithful through the darkness of this world into the light of His glorious kingdom. The candles came to signify the light of devoted faith, revelation, and hope. These customs have remained for nearly nineteen-centuries and now serve as meaningful traditions for millions of Christians (including us) around the world. Historically, the various forms of the Christ Candle actually are a front runner for the use of symbolic candles around the Christmas or winter holiday season. Many different cultures and religions have used the burning candle as a symbol of their faith or cultural significance.
In the continued traditions of ancient Judaism, candles are lit during Hanukkah. Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for “dedication,” is the known as the Festival of Lights and commemorates the ancient victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian/Greek army, and the subsequent miracle of rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and restoring the menorah (lamp). The miracle of Hanukkah is that only one vial of oil was found with just enough oil to illuminate the Temple lamp for one day, and yet it lasted for eight full days - thus the reason for 8 candles on the Menorah (chanukiah), with a 9th helper candle.
There are seven burning candles in the Kinara Lampstand representing the Seven-Principles of the modern winter festival Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.
For centuries in Northern Europe and the Scandinavian countries, symbolic Holiday candles have had a special if not superstitious significance. By the Middle Ages it was very important for a family to burn the large white Yule Candle on the eve of Christmas until the mid-day family meal on Christmas day. In Scotland, if the candle flame went out before midnight, it was believed that the family would soon face a great disaster. In Ireland, the Yule Candles were made so huge that the candle holders had be cut out of huge turnips in order to be used as candlesticks. Because the Yule Candle first started as a pagan tradition later to be adopted by European and Scandinavian Christians the traditional superstitions attached to the Yule Candle became problematic in regards to its religious significance.
Well Reunion, once again it’s Christmas Eve, and we have gathered to celebrate in the gospel and carols, and to worship in prayer and communion Jesus the Light of the World.
One of our Christmas traditions at Reunion Community is the Advent candles and wreath, centered by the Christ candle. Each Sunday of Advent we light an additional candle on the wreath as both a reminder and anticipation of the promise of Jesus to come again. That’s usually just a small part of our Advent celebration, but this Advent season we did something a little different – we attached the promise of Advent to call of Christ to love beyond love. To love as He loved – beyond Himself, beyond the splendor of heaven, beyond the glory of the Father to the depravity, deception, and wounds of humanity.
For our Advent messages on Sunday mornings, we also used the traditional candles on the Advent wreath as the themes of virtue for our weekly readings. For example, the first advent candle represents hope, so the first Sunday of Advent we looked at hope in light of Christmas and the Christmas story. The second candle represents peace, so the second Sunday we looked at peace and how it relates to Christmas. And then we did the same for the third and fourth advent candles which represent joy and love.
But you may have noticed there’s one candle left in the wreath, and that is the center candle, also called the Christ Candle. On Christmas Eve we light our Christ Candle along with all four Advent candles.
The Christ Candle represents the light that the Son brought into the world when he was miraculously born to Mary His mother, God in the flesh. The fact that the Advent candles remain on Christmas Eve puts the focus on this special moment of birth, the moment of transition from the prophecy of the ancient prophets to fulfillment of His birth in Bethlehem.
And so this being Christmas Eve we have lit all four outside candles as well as the center candle in celebration of not only the tradition of a Christian Christmas, but of His promise to never leave us or forsake us, to call us from darkness into His marvelous light, to be lamp to our feet and a light to our path, to lead us into righteousness for His name sake, to be the light in us as we set ourselves on the hill for the world to see. To shine before others so that they might see the glory of our Father in heaven. The Christ candle is in the center because the Christ candle reminds us that Jesus is the center of Christmas. The four outer candles are all important, but they only make sense with Jesus at the center. Yes, Christmas is a time of hope, peace, joy and love, but once again, this is only because of Jesus the light and life of the world. And so tonight I want us to look to Him once again as the center of not only Christmas, but look to Him as the center of our being - our life - our light - our Lord and King.
[Light the Christ Candle and Lead into Communion]
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