If you’ve been to a wedding in the last 40-50 years, you’ve probably experienced “The Unity Candle” – when the two marriage partners take two individual candles, usually taper candles, and light one larger candle, usually a pillar candle, as a sign of the union that their vows create. No one seems too sure how this tradition got started. Apparently it gained popularity after being seen at Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital in 1981. Eye roll. And candle-makers and florists certainly jumped on the bandwagon. I’ve seen some very elaborate flower arrangements with ornately decorated unity candles. It’s not an official part of the Lutheran or the Episcopal marriage rite, and yet I can’t remember the last marriage (other than my own!) that didn’t have a Unity Candle or some other substitute. Or, pouring together two different colors of sand is a corollary tradition that has developed alongside the Unity Candle, especially for outdoor weddings where keeping candles lit is problematic. Because who knows what superstitious nonsense people might take away if the Unity Candle blew out! People would have the couple in divorce court before the reception was over! Now, I poke fun at the idea of the Unity Candle, but I’m not really opposed to it. What I am opposed to, however, and what I always strictly instruct the couple, is that, once they light the center candle, they MUST NOT extinguish their own individual candles. Getting married, while it creates a new combined identity for the couple, does not erase the identity of the two individuals.
Uniqueness and unity held together in tension. That’s a description of a good marriage – one in which both partners are cherished and valued for their own individual gifts and passions and identities, but also in which the two, joined together by their relationship, create something bigger and better and stronger than just the sum of the individual parts. That’s the reality that the wedding unity candle tries to capture – a reality that can’t really be explained, but only symbolized, and then experienced through a lifetime of being in relationship.
Uniqueness and unity held together in tension is also one way of thinking about the Trinity: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct “persons” – and I say “persons” in quotation marks because of course they’re not really persons – they are three distinct ways of experiencing the work of God, but because these three are all really one God, they are greater than they would be if we knew only one aspect of God. God the Father is worthy of our worship and praise as the creator of all things, animate and inanimate. God the Son is worthy of our worship and praise as God incarnate, the teacher and healer, the example for our faithful living, and the one who conquered death for us all. God the Holy Spirit is worthy of our worship and praise as the one who pours God’s love into our hearts and guides us into truth, the one who ignites our passions and stills our souls. But God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is far greater than we can explain. We can only symbolize this great God with words like “Trinity” and pictures like three-sided triangles connected by the unending unity of a circle. This great God can only be experienced through a lifetime of being in relationship – the three persons of God in relationship with one another, drawing us into relationship with God, and letting that relationship with God sustain our relationships with one another.
So my prayer for you this day is not that you understand the three-in-oneness of God because it truly is beyond our comprehension or explanation. My prayer for you is that by contemplating the mysterious relationship of God with Godself, the intimate relationship of God with us, and the binding relationship we have to one another through our connection to God, that you might experience the awesome greatness of God.
After we pray together as a community, I will invite you to take part in some symbolic actions at one or all of the prayer stations around the nave. I say they’re symbolic because, just like the wedding unity candle doesn’t unite the couple, but represents their unity, in the same way each prayer station doesn’t give power to our prayers – but it each station helps us to represent the mysterious work of prayer.
– Visit the back station and place a stone into the baptismal font. As your hand gets wet, as you feel the water, let it remind you of the promise of God’s love and forgiveness. The water doesn’t bring forgiveness. It reminds us of our relationship with Christ through whom we have mercy.
– Visit the left side where you will find a map of the world. Put a push pin in the map to represent a prayer for a person or a geographic region. The push pin isn’t the prayer – but it helps you to visualize our connections through prayer with people around the world.
– Visit the front of the church and light a candle. Last week, I invited you to light a candle to ask God to warm your hearts and brighten your spirits. Today I invite you to light a candle for someone else with whom you are in relationship. The light is not the power of prayer, but it represents how, when we pray, we hold one another up in the light of Christ.
– Finally, if you wish, visit the right station where I will be waiting to anoint you in the most holy name of the Trinity, praying with you for healing. The power of prayer isn’t the oil with which I make the cross on your forehead, nor does it come through my hands on your head. But I pray that, in feeling those physical symbols, you will feel the healing power of God.
The power of prayer, like the Trinity, cannot be understood or explained. But it can be symbolized with ritual action and known in relationship. Let us now enter God’s healing presence, first in communal prayer, and then through song and visiting our prayer stations.