Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 20, 2004
Place a candle in your window
The burning flame on Christmas Eve welcomes Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the weary traveller
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
The sulphur from the ignited wooden match fills the air as I light the stub of an altar candle scrounged from a place of worship.
The yellow-orange flame dances up into the frigid air of my inner city porch.
And as the light flickers through the soot-stained window onto the winter street, my Irish roots sigh with satisfaction.
Now Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus know they are welcome. So do priests and any other weary traveller, says traditional lore.
For that is when it all began.
Today, the definition of the open door usually extends to the weary traveller.
Father Paul Andrews, a Jesuit priest living in Dublin, shared his experiences with me.
"If you have ever travelled in a strange country without secure lodging for the night, you have noticed which windows invite and which repel. As dusk falls, some are curtained so thickly that not a chink of light shows through from the inside. Often there is a mastiff growling to discourage further exploration.
"The message is clear, and you turn away. But others are bright with a message of welcome, or at least of openness.
"Lately I was lost in a strange city, and I saw such a window, bright and with no curtains. A woman answered the door and called her husband: 'Jimmy, would you help this man find St Paul's?' Jimmy got into his car and led me for over a mile to my destination."
And it is this warmth that stirs Patrick Stewart's heart.
"The candle is an invitation lighting the way to a warm home, a meal, a cup of tea with someone with the love of Christ in their heart."
Now the director of the Marian Centre, Stewart remembers being stirred even years ago by the Christmas decorative candles in a window in Newport, R.I. He was in the U.S. Navy, and it was before Stewart turned to walk Christ's path. "Even then, the beauty touched my heart."
Candles in the window, during British-occupied Ireland, while enchanting indeed, also spoke a real, pragmatic message. The Catholics placed three pillars of flame in the window - one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit.
Passing fellow Catholics knew by the three flames of faith that this was Catholic home and that they were welcome there. Priests also knew they too could find a warm meal in that home and could say the Christmas Eve Mass there in safety and in peace.
But didn't the British authorities wonder about the candles? Sure, and when they asked, the homeowners just told them the light was to direct Mary and Joseph - "To light the way for the Lore" - and the door would be left unlatched so they could find a place to stay.
Disarmed by the explanation, the British dismissed the glowing candles as just another bit of Irish superstition and left them in peace.
"Many light candles at this festive time, but they do not even know why, but it is a signal of great, great meaning," comments Vicar-General Msgr. Don MacDonald.
When he was a child in the pastoral village of Heatherton just outside of Antigonish, N.S., his mother put an artificial wreath with an electric candle glowing in the middle in the window.
"It was a sign there is a place, room for hungry people, a decent meal, an empty chair," says MacDonald. "It was also a sign that Jesus is the light of the world and the centre of our lives."
While a spiritual statement, that candle could also serve a quite practical service. The Metis do indeed put a candle in the window, says Jack Bell. And while a signal of his parents' and grandparents' faith, it also served as a beacon.
"People coming to our farm in Callahoo were coming from miles and miles away and often it would be by sleigh and horseback. So that candle was also a sign of welcome to them," says the pastor's assistant at Edmonton's Sacred Heart Parish.
The real message
Himself now off to New Zealand to fill in so one-man parish priests can have Christmas break, Paul Andrews, the Irish Jesuit we heard from at the beginning of this story, gives perhaps the most powerful explanation of what we are saying when we light that candle.
"At Christmas, a candle in the window sends such a message: we are not closed in on ourselves. If somebody needs us, we are open for business."
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