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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | Brightest and best

Near Epiphany of Our Lord Church in south St. Louis, there is a magical place. You’ve probably heard of it — Candy Cane Lane. People come from all over to walk or drive down Candy Cane Lane. Most of the year, it’s a normal neighborhood, but in December the Christmas spirit — and I’m sure months of hard work and planning — transforms the place into a wonderland. There are lots of decorations, but what always impresses me most are the lights.

There’s something about Christmas lights shining in frosty winter air. It reminds me of childhood, when I would eagerly count how many houses in my neighborhood had their lights turned on. I knew that, as more and more houses were lit up, Christmas day was drawing closer.

Christmas arrives just after the shortest and darkest day of the year, which occurs on December 21 at the Winter Solstice. Throughout Advent, the night drops heavier and more persistently until, finally, as the great solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord arrives, it begins to brighten again. In the Catholic calendar, the birth of the Savior is literally linked to the reappearance of the sun. He’s the light of the world.

This is why Christmas is so full of lights. We put them in our houses on trees and garland, outside on the bushes and railings. We make Advent wreaths and watch the flames flicker on the candles as we anticipate the emergence of Our Lord from the stillness of the womb. During Advent, some parishes celebrate a Rorate Caeli Mass entirely by candlelight, timing the elevation of the host as closely as possible to the sun breaking over the horizon.

The solemnity of the Epiphany continues the theme and is also connected with light, particularly the star in the sky that led the Magi to the Holy Family. The star was said to be the brightest in the night sky, a visible sign by which to navigate to the side of Christ. To me, one of the most beautiful Epiphany hymns is, “Brightest and Best.” We sing it every year in our parish, happily dedicated to the Epiphany, and I hope you have a chance to sing it, too.

The first verse is all about light and dark:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;

star of the east, the horizon adorning,

guide where our infant redeemer is laid.

This, perhaps, is why Christmas lights are so enchanting. They’re little reminders that the darkness will not win. We Catholics live with a deeply rooted hope, an internal glow of grace that guides us through the darkest moments of our lives, whenever those might be. The sun is just over the horizon. The Christmas star is ascendant. Christ has been born and His glory shines brighter and brighter.

Father Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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