Marking Passages: How the church can celebrate stages in a member's life

Candles have a long and rich history in Christian worship. We light them during Advent to remind us that "the true light that enlightens everyone" [NRSV] is coming into the world.

Some churches have also introduced a baptismal candle to their worship traditions. Other churches have expanded the use of this candle and call it the "Christian life candle." Usually given on the occasion of baptism, the Christian life candle contains symbols representing important transitions in the life of a Christian such as baptism, the first communion, commissioning, marriage, ordination, and death. Passed from parent to child, the candle is meant to be lighted again on each anniversary of the persons baptism.

Like the baptismal candle, this candle is presented at baptism and is lighted each year on the anniversary of the person's baptism. But it is also lighted in worship each time the congregation gathers with the person to celebrate another of life's transitions. On such occasions, the family ties of God's people are often most deeply felt.

Why a Christian Life Candle?

Baptism, in the Reformed tradition, involves a vow not only by the parents but also by the congregation to be faithful in ministering to this new member of the Christian family. This solemn promise is too often passed over quickly with a collective "We do" in response to a corporate question of commitment. The presentation of the life candle is an opportunity to reflect more deeply on just what is happening in this sacred moment. What exactly are we promising to do?

When children or adults are baptized, they are ingrafted into the body of Christ. God makes promises and so do we. God promises, "I will be your God, and you will be my people." Yet there is a real sense in which we also, collectively bind this new member to the whole body of Christ. In speaking our vows, we commit ourselves to personal action. The members of the congregation promise to teach the baptized person the good news and the commands of Christ, and to solidify his or her family ties with Christ's church.

With modern mobility and human mortality the fact is that most of the people who voice this promise at baptism may not personally be there to fulfill it throughout the person's life. But as members of the church universal, we represent Christ, who is reliably with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death.

Presenting the Christian Life Candle

As part of the presentation of the life candle, it is important to offer a brief explanation of the candle's meaning and purpose. Comments on the order of the following would be appropriate:

The Christian life candle is presented to you as a symbol of the churchs presence with you through all of life's stages and transitions. It contains six symbols that represent important events in the life of a Christian. It is meant to be lighted on each anniversary of your baptism, and to be used during worship services marking these significant events in your life.

The shell is an ancient syinbol of Christian baptism. The grapes and grain represent your first experience with communion. The descending dove is symbolic of adult confirmation or profession of faith. The intertwined rings and cross represent Christian marriage. The shepherds crook and open book symbolize ordination to office within the church. And the anchor and waves in the form of the cross represent death in Christ since the candle will be lighted for ihe last time on the occasion of your [or this childs] memorial service Thus me life candle symbolizes Ihe whole of your life in Christ.

Introducing the Hymn of Celebration

If you also intend to use "We Rejoice in Your Creation" as part of your service, you will want to introduce it to the group as well:

It is in that spirit and for this purpose that the following hymn was composed. Meant always to be sung as a congregational act, it celebrates our collective promise and presence, as the people of God, to be with this person throughout the whole of life. No individual can make such a promise with surety. As I speak the vow or sing these words, I cannot know whether I personally will be mere at the crucial times. It is only together, as the body of Christ, that we can offer the assurance of the human expression of Gods faithful and enduring love.

Each of the first six verses of this short hymn parallels one of the symbols of ihe life candle. Each promises our collective presence through the persons life, which is furtfier found in the prayer of the seventh and final verse.

The hymn is meant to be sung after baptism and after presentation and explanation of the life candle. But with a few modifications this congregational hymn may also be used at any of the other transitional worship services marked by the life candle. It might, for example, be used in a service of ordination to church office. In this context, verses might be reworded as appropriate to reflect past or present tense (see examples below).

We Rejoice in Your Creation
(Adapted for other Life Transition Services)

  1. We rejoiced in your creation
    in the miracle of birth,
    and became your loving family
    all your days upon the earth.
  2. We were (are) witness to your
    at the breaking of the bread,
    in the mystery of communion
    by which all our souls are fed.
  3. Then we blessed (Now we bless) your
    confirmation (firm profession)
    in the presence of the Lord
    on the (this) day you made (make)
    of your own adult accord.
  4. We were (are) present in your joining
    with the partner of your way
    and were (are) witness to the promise
    made upon your wedding day.
  5. We have sent (Now we send) you
    forth to serve,
    laying hands upon your head,
    praying wisdom for your journey,
    by which others paths are led.
  6. We have stood beside you always,
    held you firmly by the hand,
    and rejoice in your exploring
    of the undiscovered land.

William R. Miller is a professor of psychology and pschiatry at the University of New Mexico and a member of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Reformed Worship 32 © June 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.