Post Author: Sarah Napoline
I am twenty-eight years old, and my father still reads to me.
It’s only once a year, but each Christmas Eve, my father still reads to me and my brother. We hop on the couch in our pajamas, glass of eggnog in hand (the bourbon is a relatively recent addition), and sit back to listen. My father picks up our copy of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It is torn and tattered, and has crayon marks across the pages where I had undoubtedly decided to “improve” the illustrations. My father, originally a reluctant father now basking in parenthood after three decades, clears his throat and begins to read…
I was raised by a family obsessed with traditions, and our connection to our church was no exception. When I was just a baby, my parents became deeply devoted members of our local church, and my brother and I experienced year after year of holiday traditions. I know them all: water at homecoming, thanksgiving in the fall, Easter eggs in the spring, the annual trip to Maine in early summer. But my most beloved memory comes from Christmas.
I am a young child, sitting in the pew at on a Christmas Eve like so many others. It is an exciting night, filled with anticipation and parties and joy. But at that moment, the minister is finishing his sermon, and with an audible click, the lights in the sanctuary go out. The minister steps down from the high pulpit to the advent wreath and Christmas candle at the foot of the stairs. I have been playing with my little white candle, feeling the wax beneath my fingertips and playing with the paper ring that surrounds it. I watch quietly as the teenagers – so adult, so grown-up in that moment—come forward with their long tapers to share the light from the Christmas candle. The organ music begins to play, and the dark, quiet sanctuary begins to fill with the soft sound of song. I watch eagerly as the teenagers go down the aisles of the church, bringing the light to the end of each pew, where I sit awaiting them. I prepare myself— “keep the lit candle upright, tilt the unlit candle.” The teenager stoops before me, the glow from the candle giving her face a halo of light.
It is ten years later, and I am the teenager. I am less excited about Santa, and more focused on myself. How I look, what clothes I wear, which friends I will see, what older youth will be home from college. At the end of the service, the lights darken, and our minister steps to the Advent candle. I step forward; it is my turn to carry the light, my turn to have the glowing candle bathe my face. I am in heels, and the carpet is soft underfoot, but I hold the long taper with confidence, carefully. We have divided the huge sanctuary into sections, and I head down one aisle, stopping at each pew to share the light. Keep the lit candle upright, tilt the unlit candle. I can see the faces of my church family as the light travels slowly in the darkened room. Dressed in sweaters and suits, friendly faces lit by the light from my candle. I move slowly, a step or two at a time, from pew to pew. I am singing Silent Night from memory, the words and melody coming unbidden to me under my breath. The candlelighters make their way through the congregation; I go upstairs to the balcony to see if anyone needs more light. I come down the carpeted steps as the last verse finishes, standing in the back of the sanctuary and looking out over a sea of tiny golden flames.
It is ten years later yet again, and this time I spent the first half of the service in the pulpit with our minister. After expressing my first call to ministry, he seizes the opportunity and asks for a little help on the busiest night of our year. I take a deep breath in, looking out through the darkness at all the faces waiting expectantly. The hall is dark and deep with quiet, and my voice breaks that silence. I read Scripture in front of over five hundred people, my words clear and steady, if a little too fast. After a couple years practice, I begin to speak slower, starting to savor my time at that pulpit, sharing with those people.
At the end of the service, I am sitting with my family, this time a grown woman in her first year of seminary. I am holding my own little white candle again, the paper ring slightly crooked from being passed from hand to hand. I watch as the candle light spreads throughout the darkened sanctuary, the light glowing on faces of teenagers I used to babysit.
At the end of the hymn, the minister steps to the pulpit and lifts his candle in silence. We all do the same in response, as we have every year, as I did with my long candlelighting taper, and as a young child. In that moment, I am lit from within, the golden power of holiness holding all of us in that warm, intimate embrace. I am at home. I am at peace. I am with God. The minister gives a quiet benediction to the candlelit room, and we extinguish our flames.
This year I am starting my required denominational internship at a local congregation. My mother mentioned that I would not be joining the family for Christmas Eve, and my father turned to me, a stricken look on his face. “You won’t?” He asked, befuddled. After all, it was tradition. “Why not?” I took a deep breath in and reminded him gently that this year, I would need to be with my new congregation, serving as a ministerial intern. “Oh,” he nods quietly.
If I’m lucky, I will be able to preside over the afternoon service with my internship, and then scoot across town to join my family for the late night service at my home church, and then my father’s annual reading afterwards. But it won’t always be that way, and I am preparing myself for the changes that lie in store for me. Traditions can be adapted, and holidays change. Things you learn when you are in ministry, I guess.
But for this season, I might hang on to the glow of the candle for one more year. Somewhere, within me, I will always carry that glowing light. The view from the back of the sanctuary, the tiny flames held by a gathered family, one by one, becoming much more than the sum of their parts. I hold in my heart the congregation that shaped me, that loved me unconditionally, that raised me to be the child of God that I have become. I carry that flame. Then we depart, holding our light in that holy and quiet darkness.
Sarah Napoline is a second year MDiv student at Andover Newton Theological School in greater Boston, and holds a bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke College. She is a candidate for ministry with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and she currently serves as the Ministerial Intern for the First Parish in Brookline. She completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education as a chaplain at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston. Sarah was raised Unitarian Universalist in the historic First Parish in Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson preached and Louisa May Alcott was a signed member. With the little spare time she has outside of studying and her internship, Sarah spends time knitting, reading, and rooting for the Red Sox and Patriots with her husband Wes, and their dog, Henry.
Image by: ヘザー heza
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