For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.
There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all need. And the passing of the flame, the way that it spreads out, represents how hope and love and wisdom and kindness can be shared and multiplied through the simple act of human connection. It is a sign of possibility, and seeing that it is possible encourages us to embrace a greater vision, to imagine the flame taken out into the world and shared with everyone.
Another way to understand it is to consider the individual flame as a sign of the individual spirit. There’s something about seeing all of those individual flames, the only sources of light in the darkened room. Each one by itself, of course, isn’t particularly bright, but put dozens of them together and they seem to fill our humble Sanctuary with an illumination that offers warmth and love.
I sometimes imagine that view on a Sunday morning. I imagine us at night rather than during the day, and in place of daylight or electric lights, I imagine all those candle flames held in front of each person there. I imagine them when the lay leader says the familiar words, “All those of good will are welcome to join with us in our individual and collective search for truth and meaning, in a community where we commit ourselves daily to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person.” I imagine a few more individual flames coming into the room and finding a place where they can be sheltered from the elements. I imagine a flame here or there wavering or perhaps even going out, but being quickly relit by another flame nearby. It’s no surprise that, when the lay leader lights the chalice, I frequently speak of the special power that comes from bringing our individual flames together.
What I’m wondering right now, as we head into what is supposed to be a happy holiday season when there are so many reasons to be unhappy with the state of the world, is how we can take that special power and carry it out beyond our walls and apply it in those places that need it. We do this already, of course, when we volunteer for the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s or when we run one night of the PORT Winter Shelter or when we stand on our corner for Transgender Day of Rememberance. But I can’t help but feel that we have the potential to do more, to apply our power not only to serve the immediate needs of the hungry and the homeless but also to address the core reasons of poverty itself, not only to bear witness to the suffering and violence done to those our society deems less worthy because of their gender or race but also to do what we can to dismantle systemic oppression.
This Christmas Eve, when we pass the flame to one another, when we allow that warm, wonderful glow of candle-light to fall upon us, when we join voices in gentle song, I hope that you, too, will be thinking about how we can take that collective beauty and apply it in the wider world. As it shines out through the windows of our Sanctuary, may it shine forth from the windows of our lives, in the good work we do as individuals but also in the differences we can make as a congregation. With open hearts and arms spread wide, in this season of mystery and miracle, of comforting darkness and cheering light, may we find the hope and the joy, the peace and the love that we need in our own lives and that our world needs from our shared life together.