As our worship committee met to plan our annual Christmas candlelight service, one of the members asked about the connection between candles and Christmas: “Why do we always hold a candlelight service anyway?” he wondered. This was a question worth asking. Sometimes we repeat our traditions year after year without giving our congregations much explanation for why we practice them. As I explained how candles emphasize the theme of light and darkness, and how Jesus appears as light in the world, we agreed that our candlelight service would do well to illustrate this theme. Along with our two seminary interns, we studied the theme of light and darkness as it is woven through all of Scripture, and then we planned a service to highlight this magnificent biblical theme. Scripture readings alternated with interpretive or explanatory comments. Our service included many familiar carols that echo these themes, but with some thought, worship planners could substitute other songs that would fit their own contexts.
We found it best to project the song lyrics using white letters on a dark background. The service, including the songs, proceeded unannounced. We recruited two people to lead the reading portions of the service, but for increased participation, you could use as many as sixteen readers (two for each section).
We also wanted to help the congregation experience the transition between light and darkness, so the lighting in the sanctuary was brightened or dimmed throughout the service (as noted in the liturgy). Candles in an Advent wreath up front and decorative candles throughout the sanctuary remained lit throughout the service to give some background light. Individual candles (and holders!) were distributed as people filed in so at the end of the service the candles could be lit as directed, with each person acting as a “light” as they were sent out.
God Creates Light
Sanctuary is entirely dark; the first candle is lit.
Reader 1: God’s salvation story stretches from before creation and into the coming time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s people will be with him for eternity. God uses light in amazing ways throughout God’s grand story. As we reflect on the birth and life of Jesus, let us consider how light and darkness play into God’s mighty works.
First, God creates light.
Reader 2: Genesis 1:1–5
Reader 1: Once upon a time, the universe was hidden in darkness. There were no stars to shine at night, no sun to rise or set, and no moon to reflect light to the earth. In fact, light didn’t even exist! But God did the impossible: God brought light out of darkness. Can you imagine? One moment, there was no such thing, but then God speaks, and with God’s words God separates the light from the darkness! From the first pages of the Bible to the very last, light is an important theme. Tonight, as we trace the theme of light from Genesis to Revelation, we worship Jesus, the light of the world, born to deliver us from darkness.
Song of Reflection: “Silent Night, Holy Night” LUYH 85, PS 60, PsH 344, TH 210, WR 186, GtG 122
God Is Light
The second candle is lit.
Reader 1: God uses light and is tied to light in amazing ways all through God’s grand story. As we reflect on the birth and life of Jesus, let us consider again how light and darkness play into God’s mighty works.
First God creates light.
Second, God is light!
Reader 2: 2 Chronicles 7:1–5
Reader 1: When God appeared to the Israelites in the desert, God appeared to them as light. Each day, the light of God led the people as they traveled from Egypt to Canaan. When God moved from the tabernacle into the temple, the light of God’s glory was so bright and glorious that people couldn’t even look at God! Many years later, when Jesus was born on a dark night in Bethlehem, the bright light of the angels shone down on the shepherds, and once again the light of God’s presence was so glorious that the shepherds were terrified!
Song of Reflection: “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks” PH 58, PsH 215, TH 222/223, WR 228, GtG 117/118
God Sends His Light to the Nations
The third candle is lit.
Reader 1: So far we’ve seen two ways that light and darkness play into God’s mighty works.
In creating the world, God also creates light. Then we learn that God is light!
Now we learn that in an act of grace, God sends God’s light to the nations!
Reader 2: Isaiah 60:1–3, 19–20
Reader 1: In the Bible, walking in the light means living obediently to God. To walk in darkness means to walk apart from God. The Bible says that since Adam and Eve first sinned, the world has once again been covered in darkness. Even so, God promised to send God’s light into the world, and God’s plan was to shine God’s light to all the nations of the world.
Jesus Comes As the Light
The fourth candle and the Christ candle are lit.
Reader 1: Now we’ve seen three ways that light and darkness play into God’s mighty works. In creating the world, God also creates light. Then we learn that God is light. And as the light, God sends God’s light to the nations. But God is not finished. In the fullness of time, Jesus came as the light!
Reader 1: Jesus is the true light of the world, and he entered into the darkness of our sinful and broken world. The Christmas story is full of light, from the light of the angels who appeared to the shepherds to the light of the star that the Magi followed in order to find Jesus. At Christmas, we worship Jesus as the light who shines in the darkness and gives light to all nations.
We Prefer the Darkness
The four candles of the Advent wreath are extinguished.
Reader 1: Light and darkness play into God’s mighty works. However, we need to reflect on how people respond to the light of God. In our sinful brokenness, we prefer the darkness.
Reader 2: John 3:19–21
Reader 1: Sadly, even though Jesus came bringing the beautiful light of God’s presence, our hearts reject the light that God has brought. Instead, we prefer the darkness. We would rather decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. We put our own wants above our neighbor’s. We say things that hurt others. We think and act selfishly. We prefer the darkness. Yet even in the darkness, we long for the comfort of the Light.
Song of Reflection: “Comfort, Comfort, Now My People” LUYH 59, PsH 194, TH 197, WR 155, GtG 87
Jesus Descends into Darkness
The Christ candle is extinguished, leaving the sanctuary dark except for the decorative candles.
Reader 1: Light and darkness play into God’s mighty works. God creates light. God is light. God sends God’s light to the nations. And Jesus came as the Light. In our sinful response, we prefer the darkness. And in an act of amazing grace, Jesus descends into the darkness for us so that we might know the light of God’s presence.
Reader 2: Matthew 27:45–46
Reader 1: Even though we have rejected the light of God’s presence, Jesus, the light of the world, entered into the darkness for us. On the cross, he experienced the darkness of rejection from God. The Father turned his face away from his Son, leaving him in utter darkness. Jesus endured the deepest darkness so that we might know the light of God’s presence. He triumphed over the darkness so that the curse of sin might be defeated.
Song of Reflection: “Joy to the World” LUYH 92, PFAS 618, PH 40, PsH 337, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179, GtG 134/266
God Shines His Light Upon Us
The Christ candle is lit again.
Reader 1: God uses light and is tied to light in amazing ways all through God’s grand story. When we encounter God’s saving grace through faith, we prefer Jesus rather than the darkness, and God shines God’s light upon us.
Reader 2: Psalm 67:1–3
Reader 1: The psalmist prayed that the light of God’s face would shine upon God’s people so that God’s people might in turn shine God’s light to the world. Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world, and we are to make known God’s goodness to everyone we meet. May God help us each day to be a light in this dark world!
Song of Reflection: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” LUYH 70, PsH 327, WR 156, GtG 96
The Light of Heaven
Reader 1: God uses light and is tied to light in amazing ways all through God’s grand story.
God creates light. God is light. God sends God’s light to the nations. And Jesus came as the light. In Christ, we experience God shining God’s light upon us. And we long for the day when God will bring God’s redemption plan to fullness. In that day we will be forever in the light of heaven.
Reader 2: Revelation 21:1–2, 22–25
Reader 1: One day, night will be no more. The darkness of our sad and broken world will be forever done away with. In place of darkness, we will enjoy the radiance of God’s presence for the rest of time. Until that day, we live in hope! Light has triumphed over darkness, and we await the day when the light will shine forever more. We leave this place tonight as those who have experienced the light of God’s presence, and we are sent out as those who are the light of the world.
During the final song, the Christ candle is used to light the readers’ candles, which are in turn used to light the candles of the congregants, until the sanctuary is lit with the candles of each person.
Song of Proclamation: “O Holy Night” WR 187