Does love of candlelight a Christian make?
I left blank the section for the class facebook asking for our religious affiliation when I was entering Harvard Divinity School. I did not affiliate based on my religious identity or non-identity. I could not answer the question, not honestly or without writing a book length essay. Though leaving it blank has always sat uneasy with me; "unaffiliated" is not quite on point.
In my college facebook, I was affiliated “UCC”.
On the other Facebook, I have variously affiliated myself in the religious affiliation tab as “Christian - UCC”, just “UCC” or the much wider and timidly rebellious, “curiosity, wonder, awe”.
I graduated Harvard Divinity School with a Master’s of Divinity Degree and about a year later was ordained into ministry in the United Church of Christ. To claim at that point that I did not affiliate with people based on a religious identity label or category would seem blatantly untrue. My whole professional identity was in affiliating with others who affiliated with the church (is affiliating with the church necessarily affiliating with Christianity?).
And yet, when the question was and is put before me in even the most mundane of ways - take for example just recently when I was was looking over the shoulder of a friend filling out her profile on a dating website and the drop down menu of religious identities and affiliations arrives - at the question of religious affiliation I cringe, my heart races, I enter into the can’t sit or stand kind of angst that should be reserved for significant life or death kind of decisions. How can I possibly answer this question authentically? Even opting for the uber-vague “other” would be false. I feel categorically confined and I hate that feeling.
A little lingo: “UCC” is short for The United Church of Christ. I tend toward abbreviating it because to say the full name is to say “Christ” which is immediately heard as being part of the thing that I can’t comfortably say I am - that is 'Christian’. Nor can I comfortably say I am not Christian; I wasso formed in a well of deep familial and cultural Christianity, that love and Christianity - at least church - are well intertwined in me. I and Christianity, being Christian, are most certainly in a relationship of sorts - it’s the kind described on Facebook as it’s complicated.
Midway through Christmas Eve day the first Christmas I spent with my then-partner’s family, I started feeling sad at the thought of not having the candlelight service magic that was Christmas Eve to me. Their tradition was much more social than my family’s; an open house Christmas Eve and Christmas day meant I had to look presentable. In my family, those days are sacred set apart for waffles, s’mores, sleeping in and pajamas all day. That is until it’s time to get ready to go to the Christmas Eve service. Showers all around, rich blacks, hunter greens, maroons, deep reds dressing up. My favorite Christmas Eve outfit I wore for years, velour elastic waist black flowy pants and a maroon button down mandarin collar flowy velour top. A long necklace in matching black and maroon tones. I remember choosing that outfit - at the Gap Outlet in Kittery Maine. We are a family that bought Christmas Eve outfits.
On Christmas Eve, we’d arrive early to the church or in two or more staggered groups, because mom inevitably had to be there for choir practice or to warm up as she was playing flute or singing. And one or more of the rest of us would be reading scripture or lighting the Advent Candle or being greeters. Occasionally one or more of us would be just in attendance, sitting in the pew supporting our participant-family members. If that was the case for me, I would walk to the church a little later - the cars already claimed - over the North Street bridge in the quiet magical dark of Christmas Eve.
Arriving to the church we'd greet people we knew - there were always lots of people we knew. Others like us who came to church nearly every Sunday and those we’d only get to see Christmas Eve and maybe Easter. Christmas Eve was always more intriguing to me than Easter. I liked its secret-ness and the smallness of the lights that shone in the sanctuary’s dark.
Christmas Eve is a little short candle wearing a green-inked paper skirt to prevent the hot waxy drips from reaching our hands. Christmas Eve is one of those skirted candles in my hand, in my pew-neighbor’s hand, in the little and grown hands of each person in that sanctuary. Someone has come up alongside the end of the pew and that person has tilted their candle into the light, to catch it. They then turn to their pew neighbor and she leans her unlit candle into the flame, and she then turns to her pew neighbor and he leans his unlit candle into her flame and so it goes on. We’ve starting singing Silent Night. Christmas Eve is staring at the little flame in my hand which feels like it focuses the whole world into quiet peacefulness. Christmas Eve is looking over at someone - any one - in a pew across the way who is staring into their little lit candle pleasurably lost in its simple focusing flame, singing whisperedly silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
I googled UCC churches in the area where my then-partners family lived and found one with a candlelight Christmas Eve service.
Does the pattern church has made in me, a longing for Christmas Eve candlelight, mean that I am Christian?