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

God of disorder

In the last couple of weeks of October walking around our neighborhood, Jessica and I noticed how many people had already put up Christmas lights on their front yard trees and on their houses. I don’t think I can remember a year that folks were already decorating for Christmas to this degree when Halloween hadn’t yet happened.

I suspect many of us are eager to get on with it. In this pandemic when so many of our cherished, social routines have been dismantled, we just want 2020 to be over. Maybe the sooner Christmas can come and go, the better. It could be like pressing hard on the gas pedal even when you know there isn’t much gas left in the tank; a give-it-all-you’ve-got just to get to the finish line of 2020. I wonder if hanging up Christmas lights now is also about trying hard to resist staying in the moment of this disordered time. 

It’s like frantically paddling in a rapid, thinking that the harder and faster we paddle the sooner we can get through the rough patch intact. Doesn’t matter how you paddle or what skill you bring to bear on the situation, just park your brain and book it.

But sometimes the best thing to do is the counter-intuitive thing – to loosen our grip, relax our compulsion and breathe into the moment, even if that moment is mired in the chaos of rapidly changing times. 

When I celebrated my birthday last week I didn’t know how I could enjoy the day and week which was packed full with zoom meetings, appointments and visits. And especially when we weren’t setting aside time to go out to eat at a new restaurant, catch a movie in the theatre or attend a concert at the NAC like we normally would pre-covid.

Even though I didn’t celebrate in the usual way, I was surprised by the joy I felt in simply seeing the faces of people I knew on the computer screen who were sharing an imperfect yet cherished moment together. I was truly grateful.

I agree with Bishop Pryse who told some of us on one of these zoom calls that physical distancing doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant nor ‘soul’ distant. To get there, though, we need to appreciate, in a new, perhaps previously unrecognized way, the gift hidden within the disorder.

The Gospel text for All Saints’ Sunday this year are the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 (1-12). These sayings from Jesus at the beginning of a long sermon he gives don’t get as much air time as the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew bible. It is no wonder the Commandments are more popular because they point to ‘order’, or an ordering of life. Lutherans have traditionally lifted up the value of ‘good order’ to justify the roles of ordained leaders and the general functioning of the church and society.

The Beatitudes, on the other hand, even though these are words from Jesus, almost encourage disorder, with their weeping, longing, poverty and the endurance of persecution.[1]The words that follow each “Blessed are …” statement describe states of being in a disordered life or circumstance. We are not naturally drawn to these situations.

And yet, these Beatitudes may come to us today as a gift in these times of pandemic fatigue and physical restrictions. The Beatitudes suggest that God is also in the disorder. Perhaps if we placed more emphasis on the Beatitudes of Jesus we could begin to believe in the valuable lessons and experiences that come out of times of dismantling and disruption.

Generally speaking, disorder is the second stage of a three-part journey. Life moves dynamically from order, to disorder, to re-order – again and again. The Christian dynamic is true: Life, death, resurrection – again and again. It happens. It is true – in nature, in the changing seasons, in the economy, in all human institutions, relationships and lives. Order, disorder, reorder.

There is hope in the disorder. If you read on in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterprets the Law. Six times in a row he says: “The Law says … but I say”[2]Jesus takes what he has been given, and makes something new out of it.

In this time of disorder, God is reinterpreting our lives. God is cleansing our intentions, exposing our weaknesses, making us honest and pressing the reset button on our lives. After all, Christianity has used the language of being born again. The first birth is not enough. We not only have to be born, but re-made. “The remaking of the soul … has to be done again and again.”[3]

There’s never a going back to the way things were. Never was. Grief over a loss of a loved one is the hard school of learning that truth. The past is not rejected nor obliterated from the landscape of our lives; we don’t forget our loved ones who have died. It’s more that we grow, like a plant, out of the past into the new thing that emerges in our lives. It is a growth that includes and transcends the past. 

In this time of disorder, we can have hope that we are on the way, however slowly this happens, to a new dawn and new beginning. And it will start with love, and loving others in the disordered places of our world.


[1]Richard Rohr, What Do We Do With The Bible? (New Mexico: CAC Publishing, 2018), p.37

[2]Matthew 5:21-48; see Rohr, ibid., p.49.

[3]Richard Rohr, ‘Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two’ Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Sunday, August 16, 2020)