When I was a young girl, and my dad was my pastor and my mom sang in the choir, my brother and I occasionally sat by ourselves in church. One of my most vivid Christmas Eve memories has to do with one of these times. Our church was a small one, but always packed for the momentous Candlelight Christmas Eve service. It was a favorite service for everyone, but I think as children we felt the service was designed, perfectly, for us. I mean, have you seen those tiny, white candles? They are sized for a child’s fist to clutch beneath the cardboard wax shield, and we clamped those candles into our hot little paws until, when we finally lit them and sang Silent Night, they slipped around meltily in our fingers.
This Christmas Eve that I mention stands out in my memory because another family also had two kids whose parents were occupied during the service, and those kids sat a couple rows behind us with Bev, a plump nanna-ish lady who was a mainstay stand-in for parents in need.
I’m quite sure all of us kiddos (and some adults) fidgeted our way through the songs and the scriptures, antsy with the excitement of the candles and the sugar plums to follow, that would soon dance in our heads.
When it came time to light our bitty candles from the great, luminous Christ Candle, my dad (the pastor) did something new. He asked us all to form a big circle around the sanctuary where we would pass the light of Christ all around the circle and eventually sing together. From that vantage point, we would see the light of Christ in one another.
It took quite a while for the light to travel all around the outskirts of the red carpeted sanctuary, but I distinctly remember the hush that fell over us, and the glow of the candles held by each individual in the vast circle. There was a vibrant warmth glowing above and all around us. It was beautiful, and compelling.
But there was also something else happening. My two small friends were still seated with Bev in their pew, mid-way back in the sanctuary. Bev had become concerned during the service about the apple-cheeked heat on the little boy’s face, and the little girl, too. Bev was concerned it was a fever; they seemed listless and sick.
I watched the three of them there, in their pew, carefully holding one shared candle together. They were absorbed in its glow. I felt sure they must be embarrassed. (Their cheeks were so red, after all!) And I found their presence there, apart from our circle, to be distressing, maybe confusing. Definitely awkward. I felt very bad for them, for Bev and the two cherubic children, and I worried that they had inadvertently ruined something, somehow.
Last Sunday, my daughter and seven more high school and middle school students joined our church by Profession of Faith. Throughout the last two months, these students went through a class together, were paired with an adult mentor from the congregation, did a service project, and developed a personal Credo to express their beliefs. Then, on Sunday, our worship service included leadership and testimonies from the students and their mentors, and together we followed the liturgy for Profession of Faith as these eight students became a part of us, officially. After the liturgy was spoken, despite the handbell tables filling the front of the church, family, friends, teachers, elders, and mentors crowded up to lay-hands-on, pray, and rejoice over these beautiful souls.
It was a glorious morning and I felt very glad for my daughter, and proud. There was only one thing missing: her father. Oh, he joined us over the internet, of course, all the way from Bangkok, Thailand! These are the things that happen when you are the Director of Global Mission. We all understand that, and most of the time we don’t feel too bad about the things that he has to miss for work. But, this event in my daughter’s life was especially hard for my husband to watch from afar. He wanted to be in the church with us. He wanted to lay his hand upon her and her peers. He wanted to be in the crowd that welcomed them.
That Christmas Eve when I was a child, my dad had it just right: as I looked around the circle I could see the light of Christ in, around, and among the people. I had known and worshipped with those very people for my whole little life at that time, but I think that night stands out in my memory because I could suddenly, so visibly, see Christ in each one of them.
I’ve also realized that I had the other thing wrong that night. Nothing was ruined by Bev and her rosy-cheeked buddies remaining in their pew while we lit our candles and sang Silent Night. Now I see it— they experienced an incredible gift that night, surrounded by the light of Christ. Sitting as they did, kept apart when Bev thought it might be a fever, they were not actually alone, but so clearly together with us, encircled by the light of Christ.
In our hard moments, including those when we feel subtly (or significantly) distant from the church, or our faith, or our ability to live a full, wholesome life, we are still surrounded by the glowing, radiant light of Christ, light that cannot be overcome by any darkness.
Her dad couldn’t be physically present at her Profession of Faith service last Sunday, but my daughter was readily enfolded into the church nonetheless. In fact, she came to us already shining the light of Christ, and now she and her peers added their glow to ours, and together we are all that big, vibrant glow, shining into the world.
World, do not fear! The darkness will not overtake us.