All Souls' Service November 2, 7:00 p.m.

The Significance of Candles

by Fr. Chris Hardman

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church in the 1950's and 1960's which means we had nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. We thought their practices were all superstitious and heretical. I am not sure exactly how those feelings came to be, but I do know they are somehow echoes of the Protestant  Reformation, a movement that in many places became more of a rejection of all things Roman Catholic than a profession of a renewed faith in Jesus Christ. Among the heretical and superstitious practices we avoided was the lighting of candles for someone who had died. Nobody I knew did that.

Now that does not mean that we avoided fire. We didn't. In fact, fire was one of the things that often brought my friend Snuffy and me together. If one of us found a few matches and some firecrackers, that would entertain us for hours. Both of us,
unconsciously, understood the mystical quality of fire.

That feeling intensified every fall when Snuffy's Dad, Mr. Smith, held his annual "Burning of the Leaves" ceremony. It was not a formal service as we think of them, but it was a ritual of great import that drew the whole neighborhood to Snuffy's house. Mr. Smith would gather all the leaves and broken limbs from the many trees in his yard and set them on fire. This was before city services did this for you and before fire departments frowned upon the practice.

He would wait until dusk so everyone would have a chance to gather. He would pour a little ritual lighter fluid on the pile to make sure it burned quickly and well. Then he would pull out his sacred cigarette lighter and light the pile. Soon it became a wall of dancing flames with sparks rising into heaven. It was a sight to behold. For me, it felt like a giant door opening into the unknown, a gateway into a mystical world beyond our own.

 

As I have grown older I am still fascinated with fire, but more because it has become a symbol of the Holy Spirit for me. Scripture puts it this way:

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them."
(Acts 2: 1-3)

This story is about the gift of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit that brings us into Christ, into fellowship with one another and binds us together in God's love. Fire is a symbol of that presence and power. And so, now, in contrast to my earlier life, I do light candles for those who have died. I light them because it reminds me of the truth, that the Holy Spirit brings us together in Christ when we are alive and raises us to new life in Christ when we die. So, alive or dead we are in Christ!

On Friday, November 2, we will hold our annual All Souls' Service where we all have a chance to light a candle for someone who has died and place that lit candle on the altar. We will declare Christ's victory over death-Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We will consecrate the bread and wine in the midst of all those lit candles, in the midst of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Then when we receive the body and blood of Christ, we will experience that sense of being "in Christ" and know we are not far from those who have gone on before.

I will be at the All Souls' Service lighting my candles. I hope you will be, too.