Christmas services by candlelight

Dec. 18, 2013 @ 10:57 AM

Christmas church services include an element used the rest of the year on the altar but rarely in the pews: candlelight. At many a Christmas Eve service Tuesday night, the traditional sharing of the flame will be passed among parishioners from candle to candle, hands careful to tip the unlit wick lest the wax drip.
There’s something very elemental about fire, bringing heat and illuminating the darkness, said the Rev. Carl King, lead pastor of University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill. His church will conclude its 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. services Tuesday with candlelight and singing “Silent Night.” It also ended its Moravian Love Feast service this week with congregational candlelight.
“The glowing warmth of the flame speaks to our souls in a mysterious way,” King said. “The flame represents, to the Christian, the light of Christ. To share it at the end of the service is to share the light of Christ.”
Seeing a sanctuary illuminated is what it means to share the Gospel, he said, as each person shares the light of Christ.
“It’s also just fun. In our modern world, we don’t have a sense of patterns of life,” said King, noting that when the sun goes down, we just use electricity to extend the day. One candle can guide a traveler or warm a room, he said.
“Candlelight services are evocative for a number of reasons,” said the Rev. Richard Edens, co-pastor of United Church of Chapel Hill.
“From the thrill of holding fire and witnessing light push aside the dark to sharing in and with a community of light; but, ultimately, participating in one of the central promises of faith that, to quote the Gospel of John, ‘the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it,’” Edens said.
Candlelight services on Christmas Eve at United Church of Chapel Hill include a 7 p.m. service with Iglesia Unida, a 9 p.m. service and an 11 p.m. service.
“I think there’s something about you’re actually holding this candle, holding this fire, that is thrilling and takes you back to being a child – all the memories of previous services, of loved ones you’ve sat in services with,” Edens said. “As it says in Scripture, we all go to be registered. We all to go register ourselves.”
Edens says United Church’s Christmas Eve services typically end with “Silent Night,” then the benediction and a verse from another hymn, like “Joy to the World.” Participating in the service is a way of participating in the proclamation of a promise, he said, that in the darkest time you’ll be accompanied.
“It’s a proclamation of hope,” Edens said.
Like holding a candle, holding a baby slows things down, too, King said.
“When we’re spiritually gathered around the manger, everyone is hushed and more reverent,” he said. There is something about the prospect of God becoming human that affirms us and humanity, King said.
“God doesn’t simply look down on us, God joins us,” he said.
University United Methodist Church is at 150 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. For information, visit United Church of Chapel Hill is at 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For information, visit or call 919-942-3540. For a list of more Christmas Eve services, see Belief Briefs.