I was a freshman in high school when I saw my first luminaries - the paper bags lit by a candle grounded in sand. Someone told me luminaries were big in New Mexico, where they were lit on the rooftops on Christmas Eve to light the way of the Christ child into welcoming homes. I grew up in an idyllic, historic town in Southeast Wisconsin, and when it comes to Christmas (any celebration, really), Cedarburg does not mess around. The Women's Club had luminaries set up outside of the community gym on Washington Avenue, and they added a cheerful glow to the steps leading to the entrance.
My mom came up with the idea to set up luminaries in front of our church on Christmas Eve, and I was game. We gathered paper bags from one of the local supermarkets (it was Paulus' for anyone from Cedarburg who might be reading this - we told Mark Paulus what we were up to and he handed us 100 paper bags without hesitation. Such a great guy.) Somehow, my mom found some sand and some candles and we made plans to get to church early for set-up to commence.
I remember a lot about that Christmas Eve, but in particular, how cold and windy it was. The north wind was blasting through downtown, which is decidedly inconvenient when you're trying to keep bags open and flames lit. My mom valiantly tried many strategies - we set them up inside and then brought them outside. We tried to light them before we brought them out, but they were too awkward to move. We finally got them all positioned and went to light them. This was before the genius of long butane lighters, and we burned our fingers over and over again with wooden matches as we worked with our butts up in the air, our legs protected only by nylons under our winter coats.
I tried to suggest giving in. One look from my mom silenced my efforts. We doggedly continued as people started arriving for church. The wind continued as people asked what we were doing and wished us luck as they made their way into the building. Finally, two couples stopped and a man said, "What if we all stood around the bags to block the wind while you light the candles?" The air turned more festive as we shuffled from bag to bag, successfully lighting all the candles. Greetings of "Merry Christmas!" and comments about how beautiful the luminaries looked surrounded us. As we finished, I looked back at the street and the beauty of the humble paper bags lit from inside by the flame of a dancing candle. The perfect welcome for a king born in a stable. As we made our way into church, my mom grabbed my hand in silent thanks.
I love this story for lots of reasons, but it will always be for me an allegory for what can be accomplished when we are willing to accept help, and when we are willing to offer help to others.
In the end, we're all that candle in a paper bag. At times, life brings cold and wind gusts that may cause us to sputter. Surrounded by sand that grounds us and grace that keeps the wind at bay, we keep trying until we're able to shine bright again.
This has been a year that can only be described as extraordinary, and not all in a good way. Winds of change and uncertainty continue to blow and blow hard. Many sputtering people are working to find solutions through fear, anger, blame and hatred. Love, kindness and grace is difficult in the face of these types of confrontations. But in the end, it's what we're called to find, and it's also key to keeping the light of peace to shine steadily.
My wish for all who read this is happiness. My prayer is for peace and love to extend beyond this season to help quell the cold winds.