There is a Romanian Christmas story, related by Norman Vincent Peale, about a little boy named, Raul, who lived in a poor village in the forest. The people in the village were somewhat apologetic about their plain and simple homely rustic church, which stood near the center of the town. They would tell visitors passing through that someday they were going to build a beautiful cathedral like the one on the other side of the forest. It just seemed to them that God was nearer in that more majestic setting.
One cold, dark Christmas Eve, the little boy, Raul, decided to make the trip through the forest to the majestic cathedral, carrying only a small candle to light his path. Raul was making the journey because his widowed mother was sick in bed and dying. He hoped to place his candle on the altar and pray that she might be spared. Raul had heard that whoever made the journey through the forest would have to pass by a deep well that was supposed to be haunted. To protect yourself from being dragged down into its watery depths you would toss a coin into the well and pass by safely. But Raul was very poor and had no coin. As he came near the well he heard a moan. Terrified, he started to run, but tripped on a root and fell by the wells edge. There he heard a childs voice, "Help me out! Give me your light so I can see my way."
"This candle is for my mother," Raul said, trembling. "I must take it to the altar of the big church so that she will get well." The voice pleaded in reply, "Can you refuse me on this the night of Christs birth?" Raul thought a moment. Then he threw the candle into the well and fell weeping on his knees in the darkness. Suddenly, the light returned. Looking up, Raul saw a child stepping out of the well holding the little candle in his hand. "Go back home," said the child. "Your mother will live."
Raul ran home and found his mother waiting for him at the door looking as though she had never been ill. Later that night, they went together to their simple and homely village church to give thanks. When they entered they were nearly blinded by the light which streamed from the altar. Bathed in such splendor, the old church was every bit as beautiful as the majestic cathedral at the other end of the forest.
"Why, Raul," exclaimed his mother, "there is only one candle on the altar. How can one candle make such light?" Raul was too awed to speak, for as he knelt before the altar he saw that it was his very own candle. The light he had given away had been given back a thousand fold.
In my Christmas letter to the parish I mentioned that this year marks the 31st Christmas Eve Candlelight Service that we have shared with the members and friends of First Parish in Norwell. I asked myself, how many candles have we lit and raised aloft to the heavens as we sang the verses of "Silent Night" together? I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 candles, maybe more. I would like to imagine that as we light our candles on Christmas Eve 1999 that the candle power of all those 4,000 tapers will join together into a luminous prayer of peace and joy and goodwill for all who have walked through the doors of our meeting house in times past and will do so in the years to come.
From hand to hand the light does flow,
From eye to eye the signals run,
From heart to heart the bright light glows
The seekers of the light are one. (Samuel Longfellow)
In speaking of the historical impact of the life of Jesusthe writer George Clarke Peck reflectedthat though Jesus was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman, and though he never wrote a book, or held office, or owned a home, or ever traveled more than 200 miles from the place of his birth, or did any of the things that usually accompany greatness, and who had no credentials but himselfyet this "One Solitary Life" affected the life of humanity upon this earth more than "all the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that were ever built, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that have ever reigned." The light of that One Solitary Life still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Hyperbole and exaggeration, perhaps, but still a truth to be told. And the truth is that this One Solitary Life was meaningfully connected to the life and history of humankind and to the ultimate reality of the universe. And the truth, which is derivative from it, is that your one solitary life is also meaningfully connected to the rest of humanity and to the ultimate reality of the universe. Thats because no human life is ever just a solitary affair, unconnected from others and from God. We "inter-being are" as a Buddhist monk has taught.
I confess that I have become enamored of late to the Friday night light drama on NBC, "Providence" (so named because it takes place in Providence, R.I.). It is about a young woman, a doctor, who decides to return to the city of her birth, to practice medicine. She could have stayed in California and perhaps done better, but she came home instead to be with her father, sister and brother, all of whom needed her in one way or another. Her mother, who died a year ago, keeps coming to her in her dreams. In the last episode she complains to her mothers spirit that she and her family would have been better off if she had never returned to Providence. Like the angel Clarence in "Its A Wonderful Life" her mothers spirit grants her wish. And like George Bailey in the better known film she learns that her returning to Providence has made a world of difference to her family and to a host of friends and colleagues and patients whom she has helped. The light of her life and person had touched so many, much more than she had ever realized.
Think about your own life and the connections of your life with significant others. If you hadnt been there for others when they needed you, or they for you, how bereft would be the lives of so many. The good that we do just by being there for others not only makes a world of difference, but makes a difference in the world.
I call to mind the memory of a Christmas Choir party at the home of Helen Fogg, who many of you will remember. Helen lived in the large house across the street from the Parsonage on Main Street. Her Christmas tree that year was decorated with real candles that were lit as we sang Carols together. It was an awesome sight. For some twenty years Helen was the director of international programs for the U.U. Service Committee. Whenever the Service Committee took on a service project in another nation and culture they would always train the local natives in the art of teaching and social work so that they could continue the project on their own and then teach others. This was called "the multiplier-effect." The effects of Helens life of service were indeed multiple and manifold. She put the multiplier-effect to work in many places around the globefrom Norwell to Cambridge to Labrador and the South Pacificfrom France to Germany to Greece and Jamaicafrom the Czech Republic to South Korea to Cambodia and back to Norwell again. Though she never married her human connections were wide and deep. I like to think that the candles on her Christmas tree that year were an expression of all the lives she had touched in more than 30 years of teaching and service.
I would like to think that this is what the Passing of the Light at our Christmas Eve services is really all aboutthe passing of the light of love and compassion and service to one another, to those in need, and to all humankind. Every time you help another human being, or express a kindness in word or deed, or give of your time and treasure to make the world a better place, you light a candle, and pass the light onto others, till the glow of that single candle, multiplied a thousand-fold, would fill a cathedral.
Whether a single candle or 4,000 candles, the light of our shared ministry these 30 plus years has touched many lives, mine no less than yours. I am both humbled and proud to have been part of the Passing of the Light of ministry and service with the members and friends of First Parish in Norwell. Let us never forget the power of illumination, which may come with the lighting of a single candle. And let us remember also how much more powerful that light may become when multiplied a thousand-fold.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.