Candle-lighting faith

photo by Martin Malina
audio sermon for “Candle-lighting faith” by Martin Malina

Why do we light candles in the church? When there is enough natural and electrically generated light to help us read and hear the scriptures, the music and each other—why do we need candles? Why act in this rather impractical, ritualistic way? It may seem odd to us who abide so often by the common-sense rule of life. Why do we bother?

One reason is to honour a historically based tradition: From centuries ago and before, when Christians didn’t have electricity and they depended on candlelight to be able to read the scripture during worship.

Moreover, early Christians often met underground. They met in hiding. They burrowed in secret places. Persecuted and outlawed, they gathered in the catacombs, away from the sunlight. They needed light even during the daytime. So, they lighted candles. 

Candle lighting honours the history of Christianity born out of division and beset by war through the centuries — Christian fighting Christian, Christians fighting everyone else, for that matter. Most of the letters in the New Testament—the Epistles—were written to fledgling churches held in the grip of division, in-fighting and conflict.

We light candles every time we worship to recall this turbulent history and honour the memory of our forbearers who needed light in a world full of hostility, war, death and evil.

So not only did they light candles for practical reasons to help them worship. Their act of lighting candles declared their faith, their common faith, in God. Lighting a candle meant that God’s light shines even in the face of death, “where the shadows lengthen and when the evening comes.”[1]

There isn’t a Halloween that goes by that I don’t get asked at least once what Christians should do or not do about Halloween. Many Christians are ambivalent towards this annual, cultural festival of dressing up in costume, playing spooky music, going trick-or-treat-ing, and otherwise celebrate being frightened. Why, where so much of the imagery surrounding Halloween focuses on devils and demons would Christians even go there? There’s enough evil in the world, we say. Why participate in a cultural event that only appears to fuel what’s wrong in the world? And so, many Christians have boycotted dressing up and being spooky and all.

Now, if death does have the last word, then we are indeed all lost and it doesn’t matter whether we participate in Halloween or not. If there is no one we can trust, no words of hope we can believe in, no story of redemption, promise and resurrection, then it is indeed a despairing world we live in. And there is no good news to speak of.

Maybe we forget that Halloween is a “hallowed-eve”, the eve before All Saints Day. Just like Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day, just like Good Friday precedes Easter. The eve of All Saints—hallowed eve—is not the end of the story. Halloween does not have the last word.

Our Christian ancestors would therefore recognize Hallowe’en as the night when you stared at, and stared down, death. “Just as we know the answer to Good Friday is not despair but Easter, so the answer to Hallowe’en is not fear but All Saints.”[2] The answer to Hallowe’en is the joy and promise and unity of All the Saints in light!

We can face our fear of death and trust in the promise of the next day. Halloween can simply function as an exercise of our faith! We don’t need to succumb to the shadows. We don’t need to give in to despair. But we must face our fears honestly and courageously. This is what we do when we light a small candle of faith.

We light candles today and every Sunday as an act of faith. Because while we don’t need extra lumens to help us follow the music, read the text, and watch the screen, we confess that the word of God is given to a world shrouded in fear, hatred and anxiety. The word, as the assigned scripture for All Saints announces, is given precisely to those who are “thirsty”[3] and who come to the water to drink. 

We are the needy and vulnerable. We live with our own shadow and perceive the evil in the world around us. We are burdened by our own sin and weighed down, even lost, in this divided world. We grieve our losses and feel deeply the pain of death. 

And we are not alone.

We light candles to remember those in the past who have made it to the finish line faithfully, despite the warring factions and struggles in their lives. We light candles to celebrate the gift of life and love given to them in this divided world. We light candles to affirm our faith that the smallest flame can ignite our imaginations and our hope in the vision of God — “the new heaven and the new earth,” where God shall be and where God isat home with us, where all divisions will cease, and no one will be alone. Ever.

Indeed, a small flame we light. And faith is born. This is a vision that is trustworthy and true.

So, we light candles out in the open. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. So let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”[4] We will not hide it under a bushel, oh no. We will shine brightly, share God’s love and light to the world. And we will live into our baptismal call to love others and give of ourselves to the vision of God.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”[5]


[1] Prayer at the time of death, “Funeral” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.284

[2] Br. James Koester, “Halloween”, www.sje.org, 31 October 2017

[3] Revelation 21:1-6, reading for All Saints Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary.

[4] Matthew 5:15-16

[5] “This Little Light of Mine” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ibid. #677

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