Ode to Luminaria

"Follow the light."

When my mother told me a neighbor came around to collect money and empty milk gallons for Christmas Eve luminaria, I was confused. At age 11, the word was new to me. But I’d never—not once—imagined that something as beautiful sounding as luminaria would involve something as banal as used plastic milk jugs.

Yet that first Christmas Eve when a neighbor lined our street with sanded-down and lit-up jugs, I discovered they were indeed worthy of their name. They were glorious. And even though I didn’t grow up to bethe neighbor who collects funds and jugs to set out, the streets they line have remained a symbol of the perfect Christmas. Because in the memories of luminaria greeting my family with their warm hue against cool snow, these homemade lights have long represented the calm and beauty, peace and joy, hospitality and togetherness of the Nativity as we long to experience it—even when we don’t.

The first Christmas season I worked at my church, I had spent weeks gladly preparing for a wonderful and meaningful Advent and Christmas Eve for our congregants. And yet, I had neglected to do much preparation for myself or my family, aside from the requisite shopping and decorating.

By Christmas Eve, I’d barely seen my kids and hadn’t spent time with my husband at all until he and the children arrived at church for the first candlelight service. Then, afterward, we snuck in a quick conversation and Merry Christmases, before they all headed off to the family party—without me, because I still had work to do.

Milk Gallon Luminaria
The luminaria, a Spanish word for “festival light,” is primarily used in the Southwest part of the US. As a part of long-held tradition or an activity just for fun, here is how you can make a luminaria at home.

Plastic Milk Cartons/Jugs
Tea Lights
Something to use as a weight (such as sand, pebbles, or rocks).

Soak clean jug in hot water and scrub gently to remove labels. Cut a flap, so that it is still connected at the top, on one side of the jug, about an inch or two (2.5 – 5 cm) from the bottom. Place your weight into the bottom of the jug, through the flap. Place the tea light flatly and stably on the bottom of the jug, between your weights. Remove the lid to your jug. Take your luminary to its desired spot, and light the tea light through the flap.

Throughout the next service, I tried to take in the loveliness. Jesus was born! Christ had come! Emmanuel—God with us! And yet, I couldn’t. I couldn’t help but feel my spirit sinking—in the exhaustion, in the mom- and wife-guilt, in the loneliness that had been accumulating in the back of my mind for weeks.

Hours later, feeling unhappy and drained, I got in my car and drove through town toward the highway that would reunite me with my family. And I prayed. “God, help me. Help me not ruin Christmas.”

In praying, I didn’t expect much, to be honest. But then I saw the flickering light ahead. “Luminaria,”I gasped, having somehow forgotten all about them. Then I sensed a whisper: Follow the light.

Once upon a time, these sorts of whispers left me feeling crazy. Now I hear them enough to recognize them as the voice of God. And so I obeyed.

I turned off the main road and followed the lights, winding through the neighborhoods, smiling at their familiar, humble beauty. Even so, I still couldn’t shake all the ways I had got Christmas wrong this year. Then I sensed it again: Follow the light.

I rolled my eyes at God. “I am following the light!”

But then I checked my eye-roll. Because at the end of the whisper, a thought came: Is this what the wise men heard too?

I continued following the luminaria path, imagining that night in Bethlehem so long ago—and all the nights that followed for Mary and her baby; for Joseph, the shepherds, and eventually the wise men. Though I knew exactly where the road was taking me, I got lost in the weirdness and wonder of the Christmas story and realized it was full of journeys. For all involved, “following the light” toward the Christ child—whether a star, a bright angel, or the guiding light of the prophets—meant a rough-and-bumpy sojourn on animal backs, with sheep scrambling all about. Often in complete, desperate darkness.

Jesus brought the peace, but He wasn’t born into it. And those who traveled to Christmas didn’t create the peace; they found it by finding Him.

The invitation was the same for me: In this time of quiet, of my being lonely and tired and even melancholy, God reminded me the journey to Christmas may not have been perfect, but the destination was.

I realized what I thought had ruined Christmas was what I had been looking for all along. Following the light burning in milk jugs to the One tucked away in a barn, a radiant fire burning with love and mercy for me and my family, for you and the whole world.

Related Topics:  Listening to God

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