A Dimly Burning Wick
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | December 7, 2017Hi friends, I got to see my Godson last weekend. His dad is one of my best friends and was being ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, and I flew to Birmingham, AL for a very quick visit to surprise him. There was a lot going on the day of the ordination, but since I was a surprise visit I didn’t have any formal responsibilities in the service—which meant I was free to goof off with (and help keep an eye on) my Godson. He’s five, and his name is Thompson.
At one point amidst the flurry of activity before the service, Thompson wandered off into the children’s chapel. The children’s chapel at my friend’s church is similar to our Godly Play room. There are low shelves with different kinds of work the children can do, wooden figures of the Holy Family and Bethlehem, mats to get out and sit on, and, most important to Thompson, candles, five tea lights in glass holders. He found a box of matches somewhere, so after we had a short but very serious conversation about always asking before doing anything with fire, Thompson started to light the candles.
He moved very slowly and deliberately, using one match per candle. He’d light one, blow out the match, take the burnt match to the sink to run a little water on it just to be safe, and then throw the blackened matchstick into the trash. The wick of one of the candles had broken off and was barely a nub. It took a few tries to light, Thompson holding the match directly on top of the wick, lifting it up to see if it had taken, pressing the flame back to the wick. I chewed my bottom lip as the match burnt closer to Thompson’s fingers, but when it got close and the wick still hadn’t caught, he very calmly blew it out and struck another one. The wick caught on the second match but the flame was small. Thompson dropped the second match on the shelf next to the first and put his hands on either side of the flame.
There was no wind in the chapel, no ceiling fan. Thompson and I weren’t even talking. The rhythm of the candle lighting had slowed us down from running around in the parish hall like we had been doing. But what you do when a flame burns low is put your hands around it to protect it from sneeze and storm, even if there’s not so much as a breeze coming in through the window. It’s as though the flame knows, as though it recognizes the hands of the one who struck it. It perches a little more securely on its wick, trusting your good will. Thompson knows this.
I flew back to Texas a few hours later. The next day was our first Sunday of Advent, and in Godly Play our leader told a story to help us understand the Advent wreath. The Godly Play story demonstrated the first Advent candle, the Prophets’ Candle, with a pointing hand. God sent us the prophets to be like a hand pointing us towards Jesus. We lit the candle, and I remembered the slow seriousness with which Thompson struck the matches and lit the candles the day before, how for a few brief seconds he held his hands around a little flame to help it stay alight. I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says of the one we call Jesus, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3).
In Advent, we await the birth of Emmanuel, God with us. If your wick is burning low, the wait can be painful, and it can feel like a long time.
Each of us waits in our own way. It’s as though each soul is its own waiting room. We flip through magazines, refusing to make eye contact with the grief across the coffee table. We’re angry and afraid of this strange illness who suddenly sat down in the chair next to ours. We stare at the television mounted on the wall because the news anchor looks so much like our son, and much like our son, the television is muted and not speaking to us. We hand our iPhone to our four year old so they can watch another cartoon because we’re doing Advent alone this year, and we just can’t fight another battle today. Shame arches an eyebrow in the corner.
If that’s you, I hope you feel the hands of God around you, cupped like the dome of the sky to shelter your dimly burning wick. I hope for you peaceful moments in which your heart ceases its panicked flicker and grows calm, and rises, ever so slightly, at the Mysterious Presence of the One who struck it first into flame.