The Candle: Notes on Holy Envy for Holy Week

—Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

I wanted to light the candle. I wanted to press it gently to the flame, see the wick catch, tilt the yellow shaft so the wax wouldn’t drip on my hand. I wanted to pay homage, be a pilgrim, worship. I wanted to do it boldly, smoothly, reverently, as if I had waited my whole life to do it but done it a million times before. I wanted to bring more light into that darkness.

I glanced at the tarnished silver laver. The chest-high chalice was filled with candles, slanting from the pool of melted wax. The liquid gold was marbled by thin black wicks and grey curls of ash. A woman stood behind it, crying silently, staring forward, the tracks of her tears glistening from the flickering.

I turned away, ascending the staircase behind me with resolve. There is something about stones that are worn so soft, so slick and smooth that they could be petrified putty. Purified by pilgrims’ feet.

I waited in line until it was my turn. Then, I ducked my head under the shrine and touched the oily bedrock with shy fingers. Was it really just ointments and hand juice? Or was it an anointing of germs and algae?

I wiped the holiness on my pants instead of never washing that hand again. Then I dropped two shekels into a donation box and picked out my candle.

Descending the staircase back to the laver, I stood at the edge of the waxen pool. The teary woman, black-robed, had just placed her offering of fire. I didn’t like that she was watching me. I gazed at the reflection in the wax, the dome of the painted ceiling smeared on the glassy surface by the dueling wicks and dancing flames. Slowly, I sunk my candle through the greasy waves to the sandy bottom below.

I held it there for a moment, gingerly releasing my index finger and thumb from the thin yellow rod.

As I withdrew my hand to admire my gift, it began to lean… fall… and plop into the melted sea with a hiss.

Just days ago, Elder Gary E. Stevenson invited us to elevate our worship of Christ during Holy Week. Holy envy, and the humanities, can help us do that.

—JFSB, Provo

As I reflect on that experience, so removed from my own place and culture, I am struck by the embarrassment I felt. I was trying out a different religious tradition, a different type of devotion and custom. I was doing something I had never done before. Why did I anticipate that it would be easy? Natural? Comfortable? I expected feelings of reverence, exhilaration, communion; I expected to encounter the divine. Instead, I found myself blushing.

The task was simple: light a candle, situate it in the pool of wax, gaze upon it. The point of the offering is that it lingers, that it contributes light and warmth with the dozens of other candles, beautifying the laver. My offering didn’t last more than the length of a sigh.

Part of my embarrassment may have come from the mechanical failure—the simple fact that my candle didn’t stay standing up. Perhaps. I think it was more than that, though. The woman standing by, crying silently—did my candle’s slip and splash startle her, or break her concentration? Did I look as touristy as I felt—like an outsider, an intruder, a fake. Did I look like I didn’t belong?

I’d like to think that she looked compassionately upon my embarrassment. Perhaps it even amused her, brought a smile to her face? At the least, I hope she felt touched that I would try on the ancient ritual of Christian orthodoxy, so near the possible Tomb of Christ.

Perhaps she too was a pilgrim or a foreigner—I guess I’m not entirely sure. Her clothing, countenance, and composure suggested that she was comfortable there. A regular. Maybe I shouldn’t assume. Perhaps she felt as out of place as I did. Perhaps she too was trying to find a connection with the divine amidst a throng of cameras and backpacks and foreign languages.

If she was an orthodox Christian, she may have waited her whole life, saving, waiting, hoping, praying, to come here: the holiest site in all of Christianity.

I can now imagine and better picture how a non-member may feel, visiting a sacrament meeting in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time. I can inhabit some of those emotions: the desire, the trying, the embarrassment.

Envy goes many ways. I envied the opportunity to perform an ancient and holy Christian ritual. Once I had failed, I envied those whose candles had stuck fast in the sand below the wax. I envy those who are in Jerusalem long enough to try again. People around the world would likely envy me, for having been there and participated in the first place.

Well, just days ago, Elder Gary E. Stevenson invited us to elevate our worship of Christ during Holy Week.  He invited us to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters about making Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter richer, more meaningful, and more memorable holidays, which means “holy days” in Old English. The humanities can help us do that, and they can help us cultivate the holy envy that can connect Christians across denominations.

Efforts at holy envy—or even worship generally—are not usually easy, natural, or comfortable. The expectation is that those efforts will result in feelings of connection, communion, and transcendence. Not always. The most genuine expressions of solidarity can be met with hostility, and kindness with cruelty. Sometimes they end up being just plain embarrassing.

But we must try. The faltering candle extinguished in the wax is not failure as much as it is triumph. Perhaps it is the attempt that matters. Like religion, the humanities offer illumination; we light candles of insight and attempt to place them in the silver chalice of truth and beauty. Perhaps the important thing is that we choose to participate, just as I chose to participate when I held that wick to the flame, and let go.

This blog post was written by Isaac James Richards, the Humanities Center Intern

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