A chaplain’s life is measured in vigil candles.
I wrote these words when it came time to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School to think more deeply about religion and violence. The year was 2002 and the last time I had pulled the box of candles off the shelf in my office in Memorial Church was the evening of September 11, 2001.
Imelda had originally ordered them for me years before in 1998, her face warm with compassion as she looked me in the eye while balancing the phone on her shoulder. This was the first time a group of grief-stricken college students had knocked on my door and ask me to do something. Say something. Find a way to surround an image of Matthew Sheppard on the Communion table with light.
One of the first things I did when I arrived here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2015 was to walk into the sacristy of St. John’s Chapel and look for candles. I wasn’t sure how they would be used in religious services yet—I was still too new—but I knew we would need them for other things.
Restocking the candles proved the right thing to do. We’ve put them to good use.
The first time I lit one outside of a regular event was on June 15, 2016 when the community gathered in this chapel to remember the 49 victims gunned down at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
The second time I handed over the candles was October 24, 2016, when Hobart and William Smith students led a candlelight procession through the campus to remember people of color killed by police officers under suspicious circumstances. That was prompted in part by Philando Castile’s shooting over the summer by a young officer who claimed that his fear of the very presence of a registered firearm got the best of him.
The last time a student came for the candles was this past Sunday while we were enjoying one another’s company after service on the first Sunday in Lent. About 50 or so, mostly students, gathered at Coxe Hall Tuesday and lit them in remembrance of 14 teenagers, a teacher, and two coaches who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on that ominous convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day. As we stood there in silence, shoulder to shoulder, I remembered the Silent Nights Vigil in Chicago, where I had marched with our bishop in protest of the gun violence that is a regular feature of life in my home diocese.
My life is measured in votive candles.
Yet I do not begrudge the moments when I am asked to search for a word to speak, to light a candle, to say a prayer in the midst of tragedy however heartbreaking it may be. But our rituals lose their meaning and our prayers ring hollow if we presume to light a candle of hope while refusing to shine the light of truth on the cause of so much mayhem and despair.
The question facing American Christians in this season of repentance is not “What did you give up for Lent?” It is rather: “What are we willing to give up in order to face and to speak the truth? How many friends are we willing to lose? Whom are we willing to offend in the name of choosing life?”
Jesus told Peter in today’s Gospel that in the name of his truth he would suffer many things. Peter, desiring safety and security, pulled Jesus aside and chastised him. This is the same Peter who one day would draw his sword as Jesus made his way to Calvary, only to be rebuked with the words, “Put your sword in its sheath Peter. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Today Jesus asked those who would be his disciples, “What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your life?”
What keeps us lighting candles and weeping over those who have been gunned down is that, for Americans, the gun is an idol. It is an idol of false security. With rare exception, our national leaders cannot even find it in themselves to make it more difficult for the average person to procure a weapon whose sole purpose is for hunting human beings. Now if you think the word idolatry is the kind of hyperbole only fit for melodramatic preachers in their lofty pulpits then consider what the late Charleton Heston said to the NRA back in 2007 when he waxed poetic as while describing an instrument of death:
“Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel, something that gives the most common man the most uncommon of freedoms when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty…. That is why those five words issue an irresistible call to us… [He continues, thrusting an old musket into the air.] From my cold, dead hands!”
What are we willing to sacrifice to shine a light on idolatry? Who are we willing to risk offending to advocate for laws that make it harder for ordinary people to end their own lives or to slaughter the innocent?
Now the great reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin had little use for what some would call “works righteousness.” But neither was a friend of lawlessness. Luther taught that civil laws must exist to restrain evil, “as ropes or chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along.” (Lectures on Galatians, LW, vol. 26, 308)
Calvin, a lawyer by training, taught that law “curbs those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude or justice.” (Institutes, Book II, 1:307)
There is nothing Catholic or Protestant or liberal or conservative or worse “too political” about people of faith advocating for laws that give the innocent a fighting chance to live. If Christian citizens of the most powerful nation on earth continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent in the name of freedom, then we should be prepared to find ourselves on the wrong side of the drama of Holy Week. And there will not be water enough for us to wash our hands, like Pilate, and simply go our merry away.
When our Lenten pilgrimage comes to an end and Christians brave their darkened churches on Holy Saturday led only by the light of Christ, will the Holy Innocents look on us only to behold an empty gesture—a ritual of hope only but not of compassion, courage, truth?
When we make Eucharist today, may we be delivered, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “from the presumption of coming to the table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in Christ’s name.” Amen.