Night of Sacred Fire
Nearly every church I have ever attended has had a fixation on what I call “the sacred fire ceremony.” Usually this involves the ritual of candle lighting at the beginning of the service. Acolytes will march out of the sacristy, approach the altar and light the candles in a synchronized fashion. All this happens under the watchful and critical eyes of the ultimate “keepers of the flame”–the Altar Guild–who have carefully coached the acolytes on the correct procedure for lighting the candles in a way that gives glory to the Lord.
In my previous congregation, when people wanted to donate memorial money in remembrance of the deceased, they would frequently suggest that we use the money to purchase an eternal flame for the sanctuary. Such candles stay perpetually lit as a reminder of God’s constant presence in the sanctuary. (Wait a minute–I thought that omnipresence was a basic job-description of the deity. Why would one need a reminder of omnipresence. Shouldn’t that be self-evident?)
The fixation on sacred fire reaches it’s annual high point with the celebration of the Nativity. Holding lit candles in a darkened sanctuary while singing “Silent Night” is now an obligatory part of nearly every Christmas Eve service. Even Baptist congregations have gotten into the game, despite their suspicion of formalized rituals and liturgies. (Never mind the fact that the celebration of Christmas among Baptists and other evangelicals is a fairly recent phenomenon. The early Baptists in America did not celebrate Christmas. How quickly we forget.)
Of course the obsession with candle lighting on Christmas really has little or nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus or anything religious at all. We probably like candles for the same primordial reasons we are drawn to campfires, bonfires, and fireplaces on a cold winter night. It’s just our Paleolithic past speaking to us of a time when we huddled together as small tribal groups around the campfire, seeking security from the dangers of the night.