Every service that we hold before the altar begins with the lighting of the seven candles. All of our prayers and petitions, our offerings, the transformation of earthly substance into vessel for the divine, and the invitation to commune with that divine-earthly spirit we call the Risen One—all of this takes place within the light of the candles. And when we are finished with our service, we extinguish them. But are they really out? Or are they meant to keep burning, and how?
When we think of the Sermon on the Mount when Christ Jesus speaks to the disciples, he says:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before human beings in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
The foundation and meaning of the church is to bring light into the world.
If we look at the candle itself, we see it is a beautiful form, but unlit, mostly just a cold hunk of wax. This is the body of the candle. It has something secretly within as well: running up its center, connecting above and below: the wick. When that wick is lit from without, the flame initially burns the cotton, but that first heat melts the surrounding wax. The hollow center of the wick allows the liquid wax to be pulled upwards in a capillary action, as the heat rises and the cooler air flows back to the bottom again, so that the substance of the candle, made fluid, can be raised up and nourish the flame, giving it life so that it can send out warmth and light.
As we know, candles only last so long. They always burn down. This is the price of being a candle. That the substance of its body is burned up and transformed into light and warmth. The candle needs to be exposed to air. If we take away the air, maybe hide it under something, it suffocates and goes out. The candle has to be in the world—it cannot burn while tucked away in the cupboard for itself. The candle, fulfilling its task, gives itself away—its very being is burned up for the sake of sharing its gift of light and warmth with others.
The letters to the churches that we hear in these two chapters of the Revelation to John are assessments of how each one of them is fulfilling its task of sharing the light of Christ. In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, the lampstands–or candlesticks–which John sees are said to be the churches themselves. And recalling the Sermon on the Mount, we know that those lampstands shall not be hidden under a basket but set up so that all can benefit from the light.
At our altar we have seven lampstands, the sevenfold church represented in a living picture in our seven candles. We might be able to experience that each of these seven letters tells us something about how we inhibit our light from shining out into the world.
We do not only light the candles for ourselves, but in ourselves, that we become the candles themselves, discovering that for which we are willing to burn up our own substance in an offering of pure love to the world, and carrying them with us wherever we go through life.
What do you burn for? What might our community burn for?