Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Christmastime is a season in which evangelical Protestantism cozies up to ritual just enough to warm itself without disturbing the geometric and inorganic dreams of theologically minded congregants. Allegory and symbol, please, but hold the incense, hold the holy water, and definitely hold the miraculously fleshy wafer.
But in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, candles come out, and next to the candles, tiny sculptured Christs in ceramic swaddling clothes. There’s still no bloodied Savior hanging on the cross in the sanctuary, but there is a tiny, tiny Savior resting in clean, chalky straw under the watch of shepherds and angels. For a little while, at least.
The candles used during Advent are reminders, communal memory-aids for how many weeks there are before Christmas Day. They don’t invoke anything; no-one is using them to pray, or aligning them at the five points of an encircled star, or otherwise using them to produce some net effect in the extra-mental world of spirit. However, our dance along that line reaches peak hazard on Christmas Eve, when we weigh down wicker baskets with half-stack white candles and paper saucers with center-punched holes.
The commercial surface of Christmastime floats like a crust of ice over the purple and black depths of Advent. Centuries of waiting and longing in the time before and after the life of Christ give the season its shape. It holds the collective hopes of generations of mourners, faithful witnesses to illness and poverty and death who believe in God’s return, who light candles to warm their hands and souls.
We reach the high point of this beleaguered hope during the Christmas Eve service. Families grab tacky-feeling handfuls of white candles and dress them in paper finery before taking their seats in the pews. Hymns are sung — “O come, O come, Emmanuel” perfectly capturing the mood in its minor key — and a sermon is preached. Then the congregation spreads out to the rim of the sanctuary, candles in hand, and the lights go out. In the local glow of reading lamps affixed to music stands, hundreds of eyes look on as the pastor struggles with the trigger for a lighter with a coiled neck.
Having lit his own candle, he turns to those of his wife and kids, and the flame migrates out from there. Eventually the sanctuary is ringed in flickering light. The visual effect is downright monastic. “O come, O come, Emmanuel” — we’ve illuminated the landing strip for You, Lord, if You want to put it down right here.
Musicians play soft and reflective tunes during this time. The pastor speaks. Hot wax drips onto knuckles and into the creases of gripping fingers. The sharp and sudden heat occasions many reflections in the mind of the pastor’s son, a certified space cadet. Heat and light, as from the sun, a metaphor for God’s being in relation to created things. Pain, such as that suffered by Christ on the cross — by Christ in being born at all. Wax: malleability. All flesh is grass. Teach me the measure of my days, Lord, ow, frick, Lord, the measure of ow, ow, God Lord Jesus Father, ouch, thank you, God. Hot hot.
At the dawn of modernity, when intellectual stock was being set away for future evangelical intuitions, Descartes sat in his study and compressed a lump of wax in his hand. What can I know about this, he tells us in his second meditation on first philosophy, when everything I receive through my senses changes with the application of pressure and heat? Smell’s gone, texture’s gone, the color’s changed. I hardly even know what I’m holding! Etc.
Christian Wiman, provocatively: “Christ is contingency.” He elaborates: “meaning subject to chance, not absolute. Meaning uncertain, as reality, right down to the molecular level, is uncertain. All of human life is uncertain.” For Wiman, here is where God enters human reality and inhabits the suffering of our species.
Christ is contingency; Christ is like the wax. Not in truth, of course, but in the mind of the person struggling to believe, hoping against a steady accumulation of suffering and misfortune that God is with us.
Perhaps we keep a silence, listening together to the intermittent taps of wax drips on paper plates. We see each other’s faces, lit up from below in an uncommon way, and avert our eyes. We chance smiles at each other. God is with us. God is coming back. We blow out our candles and go home.