Carols, communion, and candlelight

The animated television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, offers one of my all-time favorite, quintessentially classic Christmas moments. It’s the moment during rehearsal for the Christmas pageant when, frustrated by the materialism and commercialization of Christmas, Charlie Brown cries out in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

In response, Linus – quirky, philosophical, security blanket-toting Linus – answers, “Sure, Charlie Brown; I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

He steps downstage, blanket in tow, and calls out, “Lights, please.” The unseen but obedient lighting technician brings all the lights down to a single spotlight on Linus, who says:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“‘And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Linus collects his blanket and walks back to his frustrated friend. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Indeed it is.

The Christmas Eve service at my church tonight – a night of carols, communion, and candlelight, three of my favorite church-related “C’s” – will offer another of my favorite Christmas moments.

Everyone will be given a candle when they enter the church. After an evening of beautiful music, fun (and always entertaining) moments with the children, a moving message by my pastor, and communion, the pastor will light his candle from the large Christ candle on the stage. He will then light one of the other pastor’s candles, who will light someone else’s candle, who will light someone else’s, until the light is passed throughout the packed sanctuary. The house lights will gradually be turned out as the room is filled with the strains of “Here I Am to Worship” sung by candlelight:

Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness, opened my eyes, let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore You, hope of a life spent with You.
Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that You’re my God.
You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.
Here I am to worship.

I promise you the beauty of that moment will surpass the Charlie Brown Christmas one hands down.

Each year as I watch the pastor’s single tiny flame multiply to fill the room, I’m always struck by the thought that what I am witnessing is very much like the spread of the gospel that began almost 2000 years ago.

It all started with Jesus, the light of the world, a light brighter than millions of candles. He spread His light to His apostles who, in turn, spread that light to…

…all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

And all these years later that light hasn’t died or stopped spreading.

The world was in desperate need of Jesus when He became “God with us” that night in Bethlehem. I understand that, because three-and-a-half years ago I was in desperate need. Although I was doing everything I could to hide that fact, even from myself, I still had a dark place in my life that nothing – or no one – could break through.

Well, someone could; someone did.

On June 17, 2010, Jesus shattered that darkness. He offered me a gift better than any Christmas present I’ve ever been given. It wasn’t money or fame or anything we usually count as valuable. Instead, He gave me the gift of His amazing grace, a gift I didn’t deserve, but one that changed my life – forever.

You see, Jesus purposely set aside His deity in order to become one of us. He ate, drank, and slept; worked, loved, and socialized; and faced temptation, pain, and, most significantly, death. He became the only acceptable atonement for our sin, freely providing salvation – that gift of grace – for anyone who calls on his name.

He wasn’t an unwitting martyr, a good man who accidentally got caught and punished. He unselfishly and willingly allowed himself to be put to death for me – for all of us. He was born knowing that was His role, knowing what His future held. In other words, His birth was only the beginning.

This Christmas season, don’t leave Jesus as a baby in the manger. That image is miraculous and beautiful and sweet and a key part of God’s plan, but it was just the beginning of the story of His grace and His gift of salvation through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of His son.

So tonight on a midnight clear, I will be sitting in church, singing “Silent Night” and quietly reflecting by candlelight on the baby who grew up, not only to teach me how to live, but to give me light and life – incredible, unimaginable, eternal life.

And if you know Him as your Savior then you, too, know that the best gift is yet to come.

Merry Christmas.

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