“He must increase, I must decrease” – John 3:30
Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice and we will see a welcome increase of light in our days after months of gradual decrease. Light is one of the most beautiful symbols of Advent as Christ, the Light of the World, comes to dispel darkness and death forever.
Since childhood I’ve been attracted to candles in church, especially in the winter. I watched them glow as I lit them with a prayer, early in the morning or in the dimming day. The flames made shadows on the wall promising – they are called votive candles for a reason – that the hope I attached to them would never be extinguished. During Advent the candles alongside the altar help count away the days until the arrival of the Light that shines eternally.
When I was thinking about what my Advent reflection for today would be, I thought about sharing a story about candles, love and light that happened at a dinner party I hosted a few years ago. Here it is:
During dinner my guests began telling stories about their childhoods. One of the guests, I’ll call him John, went to parochial school in the 1950’s. He was an altar boy, and as he told it, the position came with certain schoolboy “privileges”. In those days, he said, altar boys assisted at funerals. Mass was celebrated early in the morning, and if there was a procession in the cemetery, chances were that the boys would probably show up at school sometime after lunch. By the time the boys were back in the classroom, it was almost time to go home. John was one of the kids who, always ready for a short school day, raised his hand to volunteer when an altar boy was called for.
For the most part being very young, he didn’t know the people for whom the Masses were celebrated. On one sad occasion he did. The little brother of a friend of his died at the age of three or four. John served at his funeral Mass and walked in the procession at the cemetery.
It snowed quite a bit the day of the funeral and the altar boys wore boots to protect their feet, but no coats to cover their surplices and cassocks. John and the other server walked shivering on either side of the pallbearers, holding their candles and charged with not letting them be extinguished.
It was a windy day, the snow was deep and John concentrated on that candle, shielding it as best as he could. He was focusing very hard on his task when the unthinkable happened. One of the pallbearers either stumbled or slipped, causing the little coffin to fall to the ground, and the impact caused it to open and spill the beloved baby.
At this point in the story, I and the other guests were horrified. We asked, “How old were you? It must have been traumatic for a little boy to witness such a tragic thing. What went through your mind when all this was happening?”
John just nodded a little solemnly and said, “I thought, at least I didn’t let the candle go out.”
We changed the subject and a little soberly went back to eating our dinner and looked for a less disturbing childhood story to tell.
Later, when we were having dessert, John’s wife stepped away from the table for a few minutes. When she returned, she mumbled something incoherently and fell forward on to the floor, narrowly hitting her head on the dining table. She lay there very still for seconds that seemed more like an hour, and when she came to, we laid her on the sofa in the living room and called 911. She began talking normally and said she felt fine; she didn’t need medical attention and didn’t want us to make a fuss.
The paramedics came and John gently and lovingly convinced his wife that she must go to the hospital, even though she thought she was all right. He promised his wife of over 40 years that he would be at her side, just like he had always been, and that he wouldn’t leave her until they could come home together.
While she was being loaded on to the ambulance, we helped John on with his hat and coat. He insisted on driving alone to the hospital even though the weather was turning bad, and the wind was blowing hard outside.
When he was going out the door someone asked, “Are you ok? How are you feeling?” He said he thought his wife would be fine. And he said that he was relieved. “I’m glad my candle didn’t go out.”