The year I turned 50 I met my mother for the first time – that is, my birth mother, Dorothy.
I had known from the age of 12 that I was adopted, and had felt chosen and loved and cared for. So it was not until mid life, while watching the TV series Roots, about the descendants of slaves searching for their origins, that I began to wonder about my birth parents. With the help of a friend in Canada I was able to locate Dorothy, and arrange for us to meet.
On a fall afternoon I drove up to her small house north of Toronto. She was standing outside by a pine tree waiting for me. I went to her, gave her a hug, and we went inside to share our histories.
In her bedroom I saw one white candle, standing in a pool of wax on the floor, and asked what the candle was for. She hesitated a moment, then said, “I burn it for purity.”
As she related her story I understood the candle. The summer she was 16 she fell in love with a handsome engineering student in the city where her father was a pastor. That winter she got pregnant and I was the result, and she gave me up for adoption. Her father had never said a word to her about what had happened. She later married another man, had three sons, but that earlier birth had left its mark – thus the lone candle by her bed.
I thought of that candle as we come to Epiphany Saturday. For millions of Christians around the world this is the end of the “twelve days of Christmas.” It celebrates the wise men who followed the star across the eastern sky until they found the newborn Jesus, and worshiped him.
The Scripture verse that will be read from the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Even when darkness covers the earth, wrote the prophet, “the Lord will arise, his glory will appear, nations shall come to your light.”
The Christmas lights have been taken down from our streets and stores and windows and stored away until next December. The busy shopping and feasting is over. The kids are back to school. Business as usual has resumed.
But the real reason for Christmas remains. The miracle is not just that a baby was born to the virgin Mary, but that Christ the Savior has come to light up our hearts, and our world.
Dorothy my birth mother married and had three other sons. She was later divorced and lived much of her life alone. I doubt that any of her neighbors knew of that one small candle that she burned, longing for purity, and perhaps forgiveness. When I spoke of faith she said, “I know God loves me. But on a cold winter day if there’s no one in your life to talk to, have a cup of tea with, it’s very lonely.”
All I could do then was to reach over, and give her a hug, and offer what love I could then and for a few years to come.
A young colleague this week told me of reading how at the very beginning of creation God made two lights – a lesser one (the moon at night) and a grander one (the sun by day.) “I may only be a lesser light,” he said, “But I do want to shine for others.”
As for me, this Epiphany, this year, in a world of darkness and dirtiness and conflict, I want to reflect the light of Christ to those who, like the wise men are searching.
To light just one candle, today and every day, for purity, for peace, for simplicity of heart.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.