Sunday mornings always follow a beloved ritual: after preparing the sanctuary for the upcoming service, I welcome worshippers one by one as I make my way through the old sanctuary. And as usual, I could already see the dismay of an elderly lady, who sat at the far right side in one of the last pews, as I moved towards her. After greeting her and exchanging small talk, she pulled me closer to herself. “Pastor!”, she said in a load, booming voice, “haven’t you seen the tall right altar candle? It´s crooked again!” As every Sunday I apologized to her and then moved quickly through the isle, up five steps to the altar, reaching up high to the stubborn candle and shifting it back into its place.
When I passed the elderly congregant, she nodded in approval and the service could begin. Hymn by hymn, prayer by prayer, reading by reading passed. And slowly but surely, the altar candle as most Sundays made it´s way back into it´s original position. Leaning in a self confident inwardly as if it were pointing towards the cross.
Seldom one Sunday passed without this kind of interactive ritual. After thoroughly looking at the candle holder and applying all kinds of remedies like paper and other material to keep the candle from slipping, I gave in to the stubborn altar candle. Submitting myself to the always present ritual of being adamantly reminded, correcting the candle and watching while it made it´s way back into the old position.
It was one weekday afternoon that completely changed my view on this ritual. As I walked through the Sanctuary tired and weary from a incident, the beautiful silence of our church calmed my turbulent thoughts. I sat down in the front pew to find guidance in the daily scripture reading, but instead of giving me relief from the troubles around me, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was one I surely didn’t want to hear today. I sighed as I read about Jesus way to the cross.
It was the unbelievable ironical words of one of the criminals, who was crucified together with the messiah, which sent shivers down my spine. ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His words seemed to me a symbol of complete resignation to the world, to God and the messiah.
Instead of waiting for a reply from Jesus, the second criminal answered to this grim question: ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
As the words of the second criminal unfolded in the biblical reading, my eyes went from the bible up to the right altar candle, which was still stubbornly leaning inwards to the cross.
The brave answer and confession of the criminal led to a wonderful eternal perspective as Jesus articulated a promise beyond the criminals guilt: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ By confessing his sins, the criminal had completely laid his faith and trust into the hands of God. And it seemed to me as if the candle was not able to do it differently, but to lean towards the cross.
The stubborn altar candle was a silent, but very persistent witness of the crucifixion. Now, Sunday after Sunday, I see the Gospel as it is enacted by these two candles, reminding us to lean on God. For we are not saved by humanly power, but by the grace of the cross through Jesus Christ.
Luk 23:26-39 (NRSV):
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’