Anyone who has walked into the average Protestant church in America during the weeks preceding Christmas has seen what is known as the Advent wreath. Named for the church season in which Christians prepare to remember the Nativity of the Lord, these wreaths have four candles arranged around one larger candle: the four for each of the Sundays and the days which follow them, the one for the Feast of the Nativity. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, one of the outer candles is lit, and so that same candle is lit each day for the rest of the week; on the third Sunday before Christmas, one more of the outer candles is lit, and so on through the next two Sundays, until four candles are burning by Christmas Eve. So popular is this practice that it is held to be of ancient lineage.
That this practice is so pervasive, and so vigorously upheld, raises the question of what place candles have in church. For the practice is held in such high regard that the usual progress of a service is often suspended to make way for the ceremony of lighting a candle as yet unlit. If these Advent candles were but an ornament, their presence could draw no more attention than the changing furnishings of the communion table. It is clear, then, that the ceremony is a very part of the service itself, or else of such great moment that even a weekly service must pause for it. If this is the place which is imputed to the lighting of candles, then surely it is significant that worshippers assign it such a place.
As a moderate ceremonialist with a preference for candles on the Lord’s Table being lit for both Holy Communion and other, non-sacramental services, I certainly have no objection to their ornamental use, or even to their lightly ceremonial use. For, though it be outside the service time that candles are lit, their signalling the imminent start of a service is somewhat of a ceremony, even if one whose significance is practical and not, strictly speaking, religious. In this respect, candles lit are no more a part of the service than an organ prelude playing before the service. In this capacity, no one can reasonably claim that candles are distracting to worshippers: through what they represent, they remind the worshipper of what is coming. It is precisely by signifying something that candles are of use.
But when minor ceremonies, once intended to be auxiliary, become so large a part of proceedings as to overshadow those elements which are instituted by God, right reason tells us that their importance is inflated. For ceremonies of human institution ought not to detract from those foci of divine command, but rather to call attention to them.
As 2 February approaches, forty days after Christmas Day, the churches prepare to celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. As Robert Herrick wrote,
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
It marks the day on which the Blessed Virgin went to the Temple, according to the law of Moses, to be ritually purified after giving birth to a son. Thus the Christmas season comes to a definite close. Of even greater interest, however, are the prophetic words of two elderly Jews.
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
This was the first time that the Christ was shown in Jerusalem, in the Temple of the Lord, and it is in this manifestation that he was prophetically called a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. To remember this reality, in which the Church is called to glory, and by which to show the nations the salvation of God, Christians have often carried candles and torches in procession; their lights, says John Donne, have been a witness against the feast of Februus, the pagan god of darkness.
To show solemnity where the pagans show idolatry, to show reverence where they show blasphemy, to show thankfulness where they show impiety – these are marks of the Christian church bearing witness to the word of God. To love the light when men love darkness is to learn to be a martyr of the faith when others say there is no god. Bearing candles, then, is a sign against the evil deeds of those who scorn the Light of Light, as well as a reminder to every Christian to bear the Name of Jesus Christ with equanimity, that the pagans may see and believe. So far the use of candles is edifying, and in its favour the Church may forget the superstitious blessing of candles that once accompanied the feast, but instead remember the true light whose death pierced the soul of Mary the Virgin in penalty for sins that the Church laments in the coming Lent.
Just as in the Presentation of Christ the candles should point to spiritual reality, referring to the promises and commandments of God, so the same is true at the end of Lent. There is no strength in candles to do aught but follow the word of God. They are like monuments whose inscriptions must come from the word of God. Their virtue is only in picturing what is proclaimed by the word of God, that believers may be reminded, and unbelievers be confounded. When the candles burn at the midnight vigil of the Resurrection, this is their sole purpose: to serve as a memorial to the people.
In the Easter Vigil, then, the Exultet is a beautiful statement of God’s most worthy praise, but it should be reformed not to point to the presence of candles, but rather to call the mind directly to the spiritual reality of light not overcome by the darkness of death and Hades – the reality to which the candles are meant to point in the first place. For candles should support the words, not the words the candles; and so ornaments will stay in their proper place and not usurp the essential elements that actually constitute worship. To do otherwise – to have words for the ceremony – were to make ceremony into ritual, and an accident into the substance. Thus ash on the forehead with words of administration (‘remember that thou art dust’ &c.) has indeed become an added ritual. While this is not sin, it is still somewhat imprudent; and so I have to think how this part of the Exultet can be revised to speak not of symbols devised by man but of the riches of God’s grace:
Ye hear, brethren, the meaning of this pillar we have set up, which in God’s honour the bright flame of fire doth set alight. Which though it be never so much divided, yet knoweth not variableness nor loseth ought of its splendour. For the wax that melteth doth feed the flame, for thereunto have the creatures of God’s hands brought it forth, that it should give light in darkness. O night, verily blessed, which did spoil the people of Egypt and magnify the Hebrews! O night, wherein heaven and earth are joined, and mankind partaketh with the Godhead.
We pray thee, therefore, O most merciful, that this candle which we have lighted and consecrated before thee in thine own Name, may continue to shine forth without ceasing, and may vanquish all the shades of darkness: that being accepted before thee as a sweet savour, it may be numbered with the lights that thou hast kindled. May the Daystar find it burning when he dawneth into day, the daystar that riseth and knoweth not his going down, but coming forth from the place of darkness doth gladly give light to all creation.
The first part establishes an Ebenezer, and is clearly directed to the hearts of men as a civil memorial of the mighty acts of God. As Steven says: ‘ “Christmas,” along with the rest of the liturgical calendar, does not recycle through Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Those things all happened in history and are not repeated. We don’t do them again and again. The liturgy commemorates and memorializes them, even holding them up to God as a covenantal testimony, but they don’t repeat each time we meet for worship.’ In this role, the first part need not be altered at all.
The second part, which is a prayer, might be rewritten along the lines of Oxford martyr Bp Latimer’s expression of supreme confidence in the fire of the Holy Ghost: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’ Perhaps these words would be fitting:
We pray thee, therefore, O most merciful, that the candles which thou hast lighted and consecrated within thy sons in Christ, by thy Holy Spirit, may continue to shine forth without ceasing, and may vanquish all the shades of darkness: that being accepted before thee as a sweet savour, they may be numbered with the lights that thou hast kindled. May the Daystar find them burning when he dawneth into day, the daystar that riseth and knoweth not his going down, but coming forth from the place of darkness doth gladly give light to all creation.
With those words, I look forward to the glory of the Resurrection. Let us not grow weary.