Melted liquid pools in the metal follower, dark smoke wisping into the air from the blackened wick and flickering flame of the massive candle. I am told to walk slowly, but the weight makes it difficult not to rush. My grip begins to slacken, my forearms are strained, my shoulders burn, and I fear that with one stumble, a cascade of hot wax will rain down on my bald, sweat-soaked head. As I finally slide the candle back into its place, I am relieved. I don’t have to carry it anymore tonight.
Outside the chapel, I stand with the unlit candle. A small fire burns, and in the path of its smoke, I think of summer, the smell of burned wood saturating my white server’s alb. We’re fifteen feet from the water’s edge in Chicago, and the wind in the Windy City is modest but ever present. The priest offers prayers, and then flame from a taper touches the wick. Slowly, it catches. I cradle the top of the candle with my hand, willing the early spring breezes to remain at bay. The flame bending toward my palm gently sears its heat into my skin, not enough to burn, but enough to know I carry fire close to me.
The congregation surrounds, and together we move through the dusk. In front, the single candle holds its light, cast out into the darkened chapel, spreading into the hands of the people filling the space behind. The whole interior becomes ablaze with sacred fire. As I slide the candle into its place for the first time, I am relieved. The light didn’t go out.
Lighting a cigarette in rain or wind was always terrible. I would double over myself, a temporarily hunchbacked user fighting the elements for a fix. Sparks from the source of fire were thrown out but struggled to catch. Perhaps flame from the lighter or match danced for a second, but went out again and again, snuffed by gusts and water, nature itself working against the deep disease of addiction.
In those moments, I would ponder what it was that held me captive to this fire, this beacon of momentary relief that almost always led to remorse and regret. It’s one thing to smoke in public with friends. They share in it. It looks cool. It complements other sources of escape – loud music, booze, flirtation and the possibility of temporary love. It’s another thing entirely to avoid the pain of solitude, to fear the darkness that comes with a life of imperfection, unrealized desires and the accompanying loneliness. To let killing smoke swirl around my head.
Maybe, wind whipping and rain falling, I would give up and go back inside. Or, I would stand the trial, wanting that flame to burn just long enough.
In the morning, the sun casts brilliant light across the lake, and we rehearse for Holy Saturday Mass – the Vigil in the Holy Night. I stand in front of the chapel, pretending to hold the candle I will carry. I am instructed to process slowly to the font at the back of the church, followed by five people who will be baptized.
The candle I will bear is substantial in size and in ritual. It is heavy and clunky, and it does not simply traverse the chapel a few times. It is lit, processed, raised, lowered, balanced, and dipped. I am lost in the instruction and focused on remembering my tasks.
But, the Liturgical Coordinator reminds those to be baptized: “Remember, this candle and its flame represent Jesus. When you follow it, you follow Christ.” This fire is Jesus. We are an Easter people. Not anything else.
Some things we carry because we can’t survive without them. Some we carry against our will. Ultimately, I have a say. It is not so much a question of what holds me captive – not a bad habit that will kill me, not a waffling sense of purpose or belief, not even fear that I will make a mistake or, for a moment, lose the fire placed in my care. It is, rather, the joy of carrying that which sets me free – love – and the flame ignited in my heart by that which I deeply believe.
I do carry Christ. I do serve as a harbinger of his light. It may not be easy. I may sweat, stumble, spill hot wax, walk the wrong way, dip too soon or even drop it entirely. I may forget for a moment that it is not really a candle at all, but rather, holy light burning brightly in the night. The flame may even go out, but not before it has spread. The light it casts will survive even my deepest darkness. It does not go out. It never will.
The cover photo, from Flickr user Captured Writer can be found here.