My favorite part of Christmas as a child was always the candlelight service. I loved watching the light steadily grow in the darkened church as everyone passed the flame from candle to candle, the tiny drops of wax that escaped the flimsy paper protector burning my hand. And I would wait in silent excitement for when everyone would lift their candles with the final note of the last hymn of the night.
My concept of religion at a young age was characterized by the innocence and imagination that come with childhood. I was exposed to it through children’s books, every page a beautiful illustration teaching the stories of the bible, read to me and my class by the soft spoken, smiling preschool teacher that I loved so much. At that age, God felt like my best friend. I’d draw pictures and write stories about myself and God, having adventures in heaven with him and Jesus. Religion, how I thought of it at that age, felt like my own, somewhere I could run to and feel safe.
I was a curious child however, and as I grew older my shining notions of God began to tarnish. Being born and raised in the American South meant churches at every corner, bibles in every home, and billboards on country highways proclaiming Salvation- Only Through The Lord! Christianity began to expose the side of itself to me that makes people scoff and turn away. It showed itself through my camp counselor the summer before 3rd grade, who told the group of young children before him that they would be sent to hell if they weren’t careful. It showed itself in my extended family, in the hushed conversations about the kinds of people they hated, wielding God as a weapon whose cuts were the words they spoke. It showed itself when I began to ask questions about God, when I wondered about what I had seen and heard and was told to be quiet and not upset anyone. I became hurt and afraid of God, who I thought was my wonderful friend. The rotten underbelly of hate that had been shown to me finally turned me away from religion. I scoffed at it, and if I had to pray, I would close my eyes and think to God, not me. Leave me alone.
The years have softened up my sharp hostility toward the subject. Maturity and experience have offered me new perspectives on what used to make me feel so confused. I’ve realized why religion is such a difficult and yet amazing thing. Because religion itself, though it deals with the divine, is inherently human in every wonderful and terrible way. It can be used for power, greedy people able to put themselves on top because they invoke the divine to make people listen. That power is used for wars, and mass oppression, and all the lowest acts of humanity. But at the same time, it is a concept of wonder and beauty. And when I see verses written on my friend's wall, or a rosary dangling from a rearview mirror I am reminded of just how wonderful religion is. It is a great tree, ever growing and changing, branching out as people break apart and come together to express themselves through new forms of worship. It is a force of compassion, fostering love and community amongst those of a shared faith. It instills virtues of love, kindness, charity and all the very best that humanity can achieve. It is a beacon of hope to those who cannot find it. Like a mother's embrace, it is love and safety and comfort at our most vulnerable.
I can once again fondly remember and enjoy the Christmas Eve services. Those dimly lit moments glow strong in my memory, not only with the light of the candles but with the sense of community and love ebbing from them.