- Published: 13 April 2016
So Why Do We Light the Christ Candle
A Reading from Luke 9:18-22
Now one day when Jesus was praying alone in the presence of the disciples, Jesus put this question to his followers, “Who do the crowds say I am? The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and yet others say one of the ancient prophets come back to life.” Jesus asked a second question, “But you, who do you say I am”. It was Peter who spoke up and said “The Christ of God”. Jesus gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone anything about this.
Listen to this story from our ancestors in the faith.
So why do we light the Christ Candle each Sunday?
Over the past week or two, I have been asking people this question and I have been fascinated with the responses. All good and thoughtful responses, yet diverse, as people use different language to describe a sense of groundedness and connectedness, that connection with sacred mystery, that connectedness with something “bigger” than us as well as the wonder of the connection that happens when we say “we are not alone”.
For some this is their favourite part of the service
I have been fascinated by the commonality of experience as well as fascinated by the diversity in describing the experience.
This Easter season, we are doing a series of services where we are taking time to reflect on “why we do what we do”. Most of us understand intuitively “why we do what we do”, but over the past few months our church leadership heard about a longing, a desire for some language that would help us deepen our understanding and deepen the experience of our spirit practices. So we are going to try to do that.
A caution though. Language is important but language also has limits, because there are experiences that we struggle to describe. Our faith experiences do not fit into neat definitions and words cannot always fully capture the experience. Yet language gives meaning and allows for growth.
So we risk speaking about our faith, but it is important that we remember that in speaking we speak humbly.
Last weekend, a wonderful minister, a First Nations woman, described her spiritual formation in a Buddhist university where Christians of all stripes studied, along with Sufi mystics and Hindus and Orthodox Jews. She loved the diversity, but had an unexpected discovery. As a First Nations woman, she identified most with the Orthodox Jew. This was because they shared, in their story and history, an experience of being displaced from their land and living in exile. For this woman, she learned from the orthodox Jews her most important theological word. That word is “uncertainty”.
“Uncertainty” gives room for the spirit to play and work and move; whereas theological certainty limits. “Uncertainty” allows for spirit quest and is rooted in an openness to ask questions and is deeply committed to listening.
But even the word “uncertain” is problematic. My own faith story dares to speak about a confidence in my uncertain faith, even a kind of “certainty in uncertainty”.
So the intent of our explorations in these services over the next few weeks is not to put us “in a box”, and it “certainly” is not about making us all think the same. Rather, the intent is to have a good time, to revel and even to play with our faith. This is a time for us to be in dialogue, to respect one another, and ultimately love one another. Deal.
Let me add that these reflections are not “pre-approved” by the Church Council and so I take full responsibility for anything I say.
When we light the Christ Candle, the key is the flame.
The flame is the energy point, it connects us with the primordial fires of life, with that energy burst in the “big bang” and with the fiery energies deep within the earth. It connects us with that sacred energy that is “bigger” than us.
But why do we call it the Christ candle. Why not call it the primordial fire candle.
For me, the lighting of the Christ candle is the recognizing and even unleashing of the Christ energy, that energy which is central or core to our Christian faith. What do I mean when I say “Christ energy”?
Our gospel reading depicts a scene where Jesus simply asks first “who do they say I am” and secondly, “who do you say I am”. To the first question, there were a lot of proposed theories. To the second question, Peter, having experienced the sacred energy of God in Jesus, responds “you are the Christ, the Christ of God”. To that response Jesus gave strict orders, “don’t tell anybody”
The word “Christ” simply means “anointed one”. In saying you are “the Christ of God”, Peter was identifying Jesus as an “anointed one”. In the historical timeframe when Jesus and the disciples walked the face of this earth, people were looking a “liberator” a “messiah” one “anointed by God”, a “Christ” to bring liberation to a suffering people, a liberation that was spiritual and physical as well as a liberation that was personal and political. This was a good.
This historical context surfaces a key realization. An understanding of “the Christ” existed before Jesus was born. The word “Christ” was linked to Jesus, but the word “Christ” was not created by Jesus.
Let’s take a step backwards for a moment, way back to the 20th Century and even creeping into the 19th century where Christian writers and theologians began to make a distinction between “Jesus of History” and “the Christ of Faith”.
The “Jesus of History” focuses on the actual historical figure, an individual identified as Jesus of Nazareth. This wondering and scholarship has been thoroughly pursued in the work of the Jesus Seminar who concluded that the predominance of evidence indicates that there was a historical figure, a guy named Jesus, but what we actually know about this person while significant is limited.
Ultimately these scholars concluded that we have to stop reading the gospels as a biography, and most certainly not as a biography about a person whose given name was Jesus and whose surname was Christ. If you want a really great explanation of this, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s book “Meeting Jesus Again for The First Time”, I have several copies.
What is key is to recognize that the gospel writers wrote, not a biography, but were telling the story of “the Christ”, what is described as “the Christ of Faith”. This Christ of faith focuses on divine presence in our world.
When Peter professed you are “the Christ of God” Peter was seeing holy presence, was recognizing the Christ, was encountering the “Christ energy”. This recognition saw holy presence in body form, in “One who is anointed”.
So let me make an important statement, it is language I use for my own understanding and then we will unpack it a bit more. For me, Jesus is “the Christ”, but “the Christ” is not limited to Jesus. There is a full encounter of the Christ in the Jesus story, but the Christ energy is bigger than the Jesus story. The Christ energy is alive in Jesus but is also much more than Jesus.
To reflect on that concept, let’s take another step backwards.
We step backwards to listen to the writers that existed before the gospels were written. These are primarily the epistles written by Paul, one of the first spokespersons for the emerging Christian faith. Paul used the word Christ a lot and the name Jesus minimally. Paul actually spoke, not about Jesus Christ, but Christ Jesus. In his writings, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” around seventy times. Paul speaks of belonging to Christ, of being possessed by Christ, captured by Christ, apprehended by Christ. Paul speaks of being clothed by Christ and encourages his readers to “put on” Christ. Paul even declared, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me".
Paul was a mystic, and Paul was grasping at mystical language to describe how we participate in this sacred mystery that is larger than our individual lives. For Paul, being "in Christ" joined him and joins all of us in the universal pattern of birth, life, death and resurrection.
"The Christ" captures a “big picture” concept of God's presence in all of creation, a presence since the beginning of time as described in other Christian writings like Colossians and even the prologue of the gospel of John. This “big picture” presence includes personal enfleshment where Jesus embodied the Christ.
This enfleshment, this embodiment provides content to this universal pattern, a content that is made real in real lives and in our real world. So the teachings and actions and ethics and way of being Jesus exemplified explain the Christ energy.
This is why the gospel writers began to tell the story of Jesus, not as a biography, but as a spirit story to deepen our understanding of the Christ energy, an energy that unleashes healing, that promotes reconciliation and forgiveness, that demands justice and right relations, and ultimately is about love, love of the sacred and love of our neighbour, love of self, and even love of our enemy.
The gospel writers wrote, not a biography, but wrote to answer the question, what does it mean to be “in” Christ, hence the scene we had in our gospel story where Peter says to Jesus “you are the Christ” .
But why does the storyteller describe Jesus immediately telling Peter and the others to “not tell anyone?”
As I hear the story, the storyteller was pointing to the deep meaning of the Christ and challenging misunderstandings of the Christ, misunderstandings that I suspect the historical Jesus was well acquainted. You see, Jesus was identified as “the Christ” not for the self-aggrandizement of Jesus, or for some ego boost, but was identified as “the Christ” in the healing mission of awakening an understanding that the holy is enfleshed in all of us. The Christ energy is to be embodied in all of us.
As I read the gospel narratives, I encounter a Jesus intent on awakening the Christ energy within each of us because Jesus and the gospel writers understand that the Christ energy, while fully alive in Jesus, is bigger than Jesus. Unfortunately this has not always been recognized. Christian history has sometimes limited the Christ energy to Jesus and that has caused problems.
However, as we read the gospels through the mystical approach expressed by the apostle Paul, we come to recognize how the teachings of Jesus is re-writing of the expectations of the Anointed One, of the Christ. So Jesus gave strict order to say nothing because he was distinguishing himself from misunderstandings. Within the gospel narratives, the “anointed one”, the Christ, is no longer a saviour who comes to rescue his people, but the Christ is that divine energy which empowers the people and awakens each person to the healing, transformative and resurrecting presence within the community and within themselves, hence the call to live in Christ, for to be “in Christ” is to live as “anointed ones”.
So let’s take a final step backwards. This step is a personal step for me, and it is a step that reflects our experience here at First United.
This step backwards is only 25 years ago. Most of you know that it was 25 years ago that I first stepped into the doors of First United, mainly because I was struggling with my Christian faith. The Christian faith, as I had been taught, wasn’t working for me anymore but there was still a spirit energy that propelled me to keep seeking.
What was not working was a faith where the Jesus of History was conflated with the Christ of Faith, where the two were merged as one which resulted in an elevated figure uniquely identified as “The Son of God” whose primary, and even sole, purpose was to save me from my sins.
This narrative raised lots of historical, psychological, and ethical dilemmas for me. It left me flat, without energy.
However, I sensed a deeper Christ energy, and the Christian story was still my language so I began a sojourn that led me to this faith community that gave expression to the Christian story that resonated for me. I am still here.
For those of you attending First, you don’t find me using the phrase “son of God” a lot. It is not that I don’t believe in the “son of God” but I need to distinguish myself from misunderstandings of the phrase. For me, I understand the historical Jesus as “son of God” in the same ways that you and I are daughters and sons of God, and the genius to the theological formations which identified later identified the Christ in Jesus as fully human and fully divine were formations to help us understand ourselves better.
The divine and human dance together, dance within each of us, this is the mystery of the Christ energy embodied in our world, it is a sacred mystery.
Jesus was identified as both Son of God and Son of Man. We translate that in our use of inclusive language to Child of God and Child of Humanity. Each of us are that.
Ultimately, I believe that Jesus said to Peter, “don’t tell anyone that I am the Christ because I want to teach you to be “in” Christ”…don’t look to me or to anyone else for that matter as some outside rescuer, but look to one another and the community, because the Christ energy is with you individually and collectively. Know that you are not alone.”
Each Sunday we share the Peace of Christ. We do this with the understanding similar to those who use the word “Namaste”. “Namaste” means the holy in me greets the holy in you. When we share the peace of Christ, we say the Christ in me meets the Christ in you. Christ is the Christian way of naming divine presence, a divine presence we can fully experience in Jesus and fully encounter in the teachings of Jesus, but understands that the divine presence is bigger than Jesus.
So ultimately this encounter requires humility. As a Christian, with “the Christ” as my language, I can readily see “the Christ” in other faiths even though they don’t use that language. I don’t want them to use my language, but I can authentically say to myself that I see “the Christ” alive in the Buddha, alive in indigenous spiritualities, alive in other historical non-Christian figures such as Gandhi.
This recognition helps me understand my own faith story, helps to deepen my experience of the Christ energy and allows me to be connected with that “something bigger” as I see “the Christ” in you, “the Christ” in the face of a stranger, “the Christ” in a fictional narrative, “the Christ” in the words of a child.
Christ is our language, our story, that is why we light a Christ Candle each Sunday. But as so many of you intuitively and consciously understood, the energy is in the flame and the candle is the form that gives the energy to the flame an energy we call the Christ energy.
The divine presence, the Christ, dances in the life of the flame, and when that flame comes alive in community, we understand the expanse of the energy because we are more than the sum of our parts. We are not alone.
As Gerald Manly Hopkins notes in one of his poems, the Christ is in 10,000 places, and we light the candle to welcome and unleash the Christ energy, that energy which connects us with the beginning of time and which grounds us in our now moment, an energy that dances within us, dances among us, and dances even beyond our faith.
So let’s dance with that sacred energy, with the Christ energy, let’s play in the light, because it is healing and transformative, and because curiously it finds a myriad of ways to express itself. This makes our faith life a constant adventure, even a celebration.
The choir comes to sing an anthem that vibrates with Christ energy, feel free to sing along…and even dance if you choose.