Since the Christmas season is upon us, I decided to post the very first piece I ever had published. First appearing in the November 2010 issue of The Lutheran Witness, this nonfiction piece recalls how my childhood fear of fire and candles was replaced with an understanding and appreciation of the significance of Advent and Christmas:
Lights. That’s what I think of when Advent rolls around. My childhood is rife with memories of Sunday school classes decorating the church sanctuary in light. Red felt ribbons secured seven-foot high torches to the aisle-side of the cherry wood pews. Strings of white lights spiraled around the live Christmas tree in a corner. The smell of fresh hay called attention to the life-sized wooden Nativity scene where a tiny desk lamp is strategically placed in the manger to signify the Christ-child. All of that, and the only thing I and every other child focused on was the Advent wreath placed center stage in front of the altar. Four purple candles, each one representing one of the four weeks in the season, and the fat pink one in the middle that, when lit, meant it was finally Christmas morning.
But that’s where my love affair with light ends. I remember the trauma of my first birthday party, learning that the dancing flame crowning the waxy cylinder was not a toy. Scarred for life by that event, those Advent candles served their purpose far up front in the sanctuary, away from me. Waiting for every one of those candles to be lit, waiting to hear the crinkle of discarded wrapping paper under my feet as I discovered the next present under the tree, waiting to wear my new Christmas outfit to church, all of that melted into fear as I knew my candle ordeal would begin as soon as the Christmas service came to a close.
My family gathered with the faithful every Christmas morning to celebrate the birth of the promised Messiah. For the better part of the hour, though, the tempo of my pounding heart drowned out the singing and the sermon. My only concern was our tradition of closing the service with everyone forming a ring around the sanctuary, each person holding a flaming candle in their hands. The pastor would stand in front of the Advent wreath and light his candle. He would touch his taper to the person’s standing next to him. One by one, the sanctuary glowed as a wave of lights flickered in front of my eyes. I loved watching the trail of flames, but I dreaded when my candle was lit. I would study my flame, imagining it catching hold of my braid and shooting up my scalp. I prayed that the hot wax oozing down the white stick didn’t sneak past the cardboard barrier and burn my hand. Yet it always did and I relived my lesson on fire.
This particular year, though, the service closed with the usual parade of candlelight around the sanctuary. But instead of a hymn, we sang from The Lutheran Hymnal the words Simeon used when he recognized the Christ-child in the temple:
“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.” (Luke 2: 29-32 KJV)
Was that what this candle was for, my adolescent mind quizzed? This whole time I had been focusing on the wrong light. All of the waiting and anticipation of Christmas culminated into a childish fear of fire. But isn’t this typical of a lot of us? As children, we are anxious for Christmas to get here, spending our Advent traveling neighborhoods to see whose house was adorned with the most light. Rarely do our thoughts ever go to the man who recognized the Light for what it was. Simeon knew immediately that the child before him was the Messiah. Just like my fear, our focus is on everything but the reason for the season, the impending arrival of Christ Jesus. This time, I was not afraid to accept the flame.
I still think of lights when Advent comes around. I count down to Christmas by lighting my own Advent wreath. My childhood fear of fire and candles is now replaced with an understanding and appreciation of the significance of this time of year. But I no longer need the sting of hot wax on my hand to remind me for whom my candle burns.