“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
For as long as I can recall, my favorite part of Christmas has been the Christmas Eve service. Growing up, I remember crunching through snow in bitter-cold darkness to attend the 11 pm service at the small, steepled church just up the road. There we would gather in a warm room, glowing all around with candles, and proclaim with John the glorious triumph of the Light.
This past Christmas Eve my own congregation held a “reverse-Tennebrae” service. A traditional Tennebrae service commemorates Good Friday by gradually extinguishing a series of candles as the trial and crucifixion story are read, ultimately leaving the room in total darkness at the moment of Jesus’ death. This Christmas, we simply reversed the directionality, so that candles stationed across the room were gradually lit as the Christmas story was told.
The climax of the service, like most Christmas Eve services across the Christian tradition, comes at the end, when members of the congregation light their own candles off the Christ candle, and the entire sanctuary is set ablaze with light and music. It’s such a rush—the easiest moment of the year to practice faith, in my opinion. Grave, war, and madness, where is your victory? Death, darkness, destruction, where is your sting? Earth, behold your King!
But this year after all the candles had been blown out and all the worshipers departed to their holiday festivities, I made one final walk-through of the pitch-black church building. And that’s when I saw it out of the corner of my eye—the faintest flicker coming from the far corner of the stage. One small candle had been forgotten, its flame burning so low and dim that those who carefully extinguished all of the others had overlooked it completely.
As I approached the tiny flicker, moving slowly down the center aisle, a thought suddenly struck me with such force, it froze me mid-step: “It’s actually like this—the triumph of the Light.”
It’s the blaze of light I’ve always looked for, that has always moved me—a hundred flames, maybe a thousand, catching from another, hot and bright and unstoppable. But in truth, the victory of Light may be that one small candle, so lowly it was overlooked when brighter things were snuffed. Forgotten, disrespected, lonely, that one small candle flickers on. Yet as long as it is burning, the Darkness is held back.
The victory of Christ, perhaps, is something like that.
In a year like we have just passed, full of so much pain and chaos, it can seem hard to believe. As much as we might wish it, there has been no sign of choirs of angels or hillsides ablaze with light. Our world, truth be told, looks more like Matthew’s story, featuring less fluffy sheep than vicious dictators, fleeing refugees, murdered children, and inconsolable mothers. At a time like this, a brilliantly glowing sanctuary can feel like, well, a bit of a lie.
But that one flickering candle—sometimes I glimpse it. In a newspaper photo. In a chord of music. In a stranger on the street. Could it be…this is what the triumph looks like?! Could it be that this is the true shape of cosmic victory?
Do you see it? Look again. Right there—flickering there at the corner of your eye.
Christ has come, and the small flame holds. And it is enough.by