I grew up in a United Methodist Church that held an 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve communion service every year. There was a 30 minute organ prelude. They had choral music and scripture readings, a short homily from the preacher, communion, and then the lighting of the candles. We all had candles. This is a common tradition. Now that I've grown up and moved away, I have come to understand that the liturgy they used each year was not so common. It was my introduction to John 1:5, which has become the guiding light all around my sense of purpose about this life.
Each year it was the same - the lights in the sanctuary were snuffed out bit by bit as readings led us toward the Christ candle.
John 1:1-4 says this, "In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone."
We would lose our first bit of light after that first reading.
John 1:10-11 says, "He came into the very world he created, but the world didn't recognize him. He came to his own people and even they rejected him."
More lights went out. I remember being a little girl, standing shorter than my older family members, holding my unlit candle . . . shrinking smaller in the growing darkness. No musical accompaniment. Just the sound of the reader's voice and the lengthening shadows.
John 3:19 says, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light . . ."
Joy, Love, Hope, and Peace - snuffed out one by one. The only light left was illuminating the organist's music up beside the chancel choir. The reader would pause and the rest of the sanctuary seemed to hold completely still - no breath in the room.
John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to overcome it."
Then something magical would happen. The lights would slowly come back: Joy, Love, Hope, Peace, and the Christ candle - and then our candles. We would pass this light around the room until the whole place was bright and filled with music.
John 1:14 says, "So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father's one and only Son."
Friends, I've never written a word or a note without the help of John 1:5. I've never sung a tune or played at the piano without John 1:5.
I believe I first realized the personal significance of our yearly candlelight services when I was 18 years old. I'd been away to college and had come home for Christmas on the heels of an excursion down south to help with the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. I'd seen hopelessness and heart break and had been wondering about God's presence . . . was God even there? At all? Below is a picture of a rose blooming all alone in a flooded out garden behind a gutted house after the storm. We'd been rebuilding a fence, replanting things . . . I remember thinking, "What are you doing here?" to that little rose. "How did you survive?"
"Isaiah t'was foretold it, the rose I have in mind. With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother, kind. To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior when half spent was the night."
I've always loved the expression "when half spent was the night" and its use in the above carol. Our lives are full of "half spent" nights and days. We endure countless stretches of time during which God seems absent. We can't seem to perceive Him. Where is He? What can He be thinking?
Huddle close to this Truth, friends: John 1:5 is still true. God is still an "ever present" companion to the desperate, lonesome, weary, and distraught.
God's specialty is the "half spent" situation. God's presence is beyond the idea of the happy ending. It's as audacious and infuriating today as it was when God was born scandalously into the arms of migrating parents, among animals . . . unclean and without a home. God chose for God's own self a completely imperfect situation, and housed within it a totally perfect expression of humanity - The Word made flesh.
And so God incarnate walks with the homeless.
God incarnate walks the streets of Aleppo.
God incarnate sits beside those who have lost jobs, homes, loved ones, and more.
God incarnate is continually being reborn in the lives of the broken.
Last night was a tough night. I couldn't seem to get my mind settled. Every so often this happens. My son was sleeping and my husband was in the living room, wrapping the last of the Christmas gifts. I got in my car and drove. Miles and miles. Tears streaming down my face - overwhelmed by loss, the news of the day, and the sense that I can't possibly do anything to make any of it better. Reader, God met me right there in my car. God met me in my car not with an answer, but with communion - with presence. So, like the prodigal, I went back home . . . and when I woke up this morning I began thinking about what I could do and what I have done . . . and one step at a time I've been walking through the day.
As God walked God's own human life one step at a time, so must we.
Here is one thing I'm doing: http://noisetrade.com/onelittlelight. I've got some music available for download on NoiseTrade. I don't want to make any money from it. I want all of the money folks choose to leave to end up in the hands of the White Helmets, who are helping to save lives in Aleppo. Check that out. Get some tunes - they are technically free! If you choose to leave a "tip" it'll end up with the White Helmets, and that would be a great thing.
Someday I'll explain all of this to my son, without sugar coating it. I'll tell him the truth . . . life in this world is not perfect and it can be very dark. But God is a light. God is the Word that spoke us all into being. Not one created person was created apart from God's Word. And God is still here, shining bright in a darkness that cannot ever overcome him.
Lo, How a Rose . . .