I had the pleasure of seeing The Christmas Candle
over the Thanksgiving weekend. Based on the book by Max Lucado
, this great little production tells the story of a minister in Nineteenth Century England and his mission to supplant a local Christmas superstition in the village of Gladbury. This gem of a film will likely become a new Christmas tradition in our household.
And for those who knew I was writing this, thank you for waiting so patiently. I did not intend for it to take more than a month to write.
See the movie, read the book if you like, and then come back here and read my analysis. It will probably make far more sense if you are familiar with the story.
* * * SPOILER ALERT * * * SPOILER ALERT * * * SPOILER ALERT * * *
Reverend David Richmond, a charismatic preacher from London has suffered a terrible family tragedy and has given up the pulpit to work in the Salvation Army soup line. He is offered the pastorship of the Parish of Gladbury by Lady Camdon, a woman of means. When he arrives, he must contend with the local legend of the Christmas Candle. Generations before, the village chandler was visited by an angel who blessed a single candle. When the candle was given to someone in need with the instruction to “light it and pray”, the prayer was answered with a Christmas miracle. The angel returned to bless a candle every twenty-five years and each time a miracle followed. The year of Richmond’s arrival happens to fall on the year of the next visitation. Hard times have fallen on Gladbury and the villagers are desperate for personal miracles. Edward and Bea Haddington, the current generation of chandlers, receive many requests for the Christmas Candle and are faced with the task of choosing the recipient. Meanwhile, friction with the Haddingtons mounts as Reverend Richmond preaches the message of faith and charity in opposition to the superstition of the Candle. He shows the villagers how to produce miracles for one another through good works and the power of prayer. As expected, the angel visits the Haddington candle shop and blesses a single candle; however, when the bumbling Edward Haddington knocks over the rack of candles, the Christmas Candle is lost amongst twenty-nine other identical candles. Their only recourse is to give away all of the candles, thereby ensuring that someone will receive the Christmas miracle. At the Christmas Eve church service, it is tradition for the recipient of the Candle to express gratitude for the miracle they received, but when a multitude stand, each thinking that he or she had been the recipient of the one Candle, the Haddingtons must explain what happened. As it turns out, the blessed Candle had been given to none other than Reverend Richmond himself, unbeknownst to him. The service is interrupted with the news of a wagon accident in which a young mother and her child are left trapped in the cold. A search ensues, and Richmond lights the Christmas Candle to provide light. He must have been praying, even if only in his heart, for a brilliant light begins to emanate from the Candle, providing light and safe travel through the blustery weather. The woman and child, which happened to be the Haddington’s would-be daughter-in-law and only grandchild, are rescued. There are several important side plots, such as the courtship of Reverend Richmond and Emily Barstow, the introduction of electricity and the lightbulb to Gladbury, the debate between the Haddingtons as to whether or not they should keep the Candle for themselves, the loss of faith of the Haddingtons’ son, a fire in the Church, etc.
My Initial Reaction
Honestly, when we made the decision to see this movie, I wasn’t expecting much. I hadn’t seen any trailers for the movie. I was simply trusting my wife’s ability to pick a good film. I knew Max Lucado’s name from his books, not because I’ve read them, but because they are often prominently displayed in local bookstores. At best I hoped for a quaint yet inspirational Christmas movie having little to do with the birth of the Lord, and at worse a blatant attack on traditional liturgy-based Christianity. Boy, was I in for a surprise! When the credits finally rolled, I felt like I had been sitting in church for an hour and a half. I caught myself before nearly genuflecting in the aisle, which made me feel pretty foolish until my wife shared that she had felt the same urge. The film occupied my thoughts for several days. As I tried to get my head around the whole plot, I read a few reviews online only to find that others had completely different interpretations. I ended up with questions about the author’s intended message, so I decided to turn to the book for some answers.
Originally published in 2006, the latest reprint weighs in at just over 200 pages, but the small format and generous spacing make this an easy read during a long session at the library. The basic premise is the same in the book as in the movie, but almost all of the details are different. The year is 1864 and not 1890. The name of the village is Gladstone instead of Gladbury. Reverend Richmond is a sharp graduate from Oxford and not a charismatic former preacher from London. The tragedy that shakes his belief that God continues to work through miracles is the loss of a friend in a wagon accident after a night of excessive drinking, and not the loss of wife and child from consumption (tuberculosis). The Haddington family are still the village candlemakers, but the Hopewells in the movie are the Barstows in the book, and the Barstow family, as they are presented in the movie, do not exist. Emily Barstow, the love interest, plays a much smaller role, and a part of it is transferred to Agnes Chumley. The Chumley family may have been recast as the Hopewells in the movie. There is no pronounced conflict between Richmond and the Haddingtons, no competition for the hearts of the parishioners as is presented in the movie. The whole business about technology and the introduction of the light bulb is absent, which would have been anachronistic considering that Edison’s first successful trial didn’t occur until 1879. In both movie and book, the miracle of the Christmas Candle is tied explicitly to the Haddington family business, but different circumstances threaten its continuance: the possible obsolescence of candles by the lightbulb in the former and the lack of a male heir in the latter. The legend of the angel and the Candle in general, the dire needs of the villagers and their hope of receiving the candle, the mixup that leads to the gifting of all of the candles in the lot by the Haddingtons, Richmond’s disbelief in miracles and concern regarding superstition, and the events that conclude with the Christmas miracle in response to Richmond’s own prayer all remain intact.
Ultimately, I condensed my unanswered questions down to a basic two:
- What is the theological context of the story?
- What was the thesis of the story (if one exists)?
Reading the book did provide the clarity I was looking for, though sometimes more so by what it didn’t say than what it did say.
Theology. The denomination to which the Gladbury parish belongs is never identified explicitly in either the movie or the book. Given that the story takes place in England in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, it is logical to assume that they are probably members of the Church of England. The church building is definitely traditional, Richmond wears a Roman chasuble during church services, and he lights candles in an Advent wreath to mark the weeks in the season. There are, however, several details that suggest that they are actually Methodists:
- Methodism promotes the holy life through (austere) humility, charity, fasting, and prayer. Richmond’s message to the parishioners is that they can work miracles for one another through acts of kindness. His frustration that this core teaching has been supplanted by reliance on the Candle is evident.
- In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Methodism was known for its “enthusiasm”. Fanatic preaching and superstitious beliefs gave rise to controversies between the Methodist and Anglican churches (e.g. the ghost of Cock Lane). Anglicans might not have been so convinced of the Candle’s efficacy as the people of Gladbury seem to be. Also, Richmond would probably not have sought refuge from the enthusiasm for miracles following his tragic experience if he had been an Anglican priest.
- That Richmond served in the Salvation Army is unique to the movie and could not have been the case in the book because the story took place one year before that organization was established (1865). The Salvation Army branched from the Methodist denomination in London. Again, if Richmond were an Anglican priest avoiding superstitious beliefs, the Salvation Army might not be the most natural alternative.
- This is a minor observation, but Reverend Richmond is never called Father Richmond. While “Reverend” is not an incorrect form for addressing an Anglican priest (though it is grammatically incorrect to use “Reverend” as a noun), using “Father” is much more traditional.
- Save for one Christmas play, the church service scenes focus completely on Richmond’s sermons. The sanctuary and the altar serve only as a darkened backdrop for the pulpit, and I recall no mention of the Sacraments which are so much a part of the Anglican life. This omission first struck me as a subtle message that the altar isn’t necessary (i.e. an anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental bias), and I finally dismissed it, concluding that references to certain things (even if only visual) would add little to the storyline and possibly introduce unnecessary confusion for Evangelical audiences. The omission would not be so stark, however, if they are Methodists.
- Similarly, when an Anglican priest is called to the bedside of a dying person, one would expect him to administer Last Rites to help prepare the soul for death; however, Richmond refuses to pray for William Barstow on his deathbed because he didn’t want to provide false hope with a prayer for miraculous healing. It is eventually revealed that Richmond lost his wife and daughter to the same disease, that his own prayers for miraculous healing went unanswered. When he does finally agree to the visit, there is no anointing with oil (much less, penance or viaticum) — Richmond simply reads passages from the Bible.
The theological context was probably left ambiguous on purpose. Doing so allows the filmmakers to set a very ecumenical tone, thereby making the film more appealing to a broad Christian audience. In any case, the book was originally inspired by Anglicanism according to the author. Lucado told John W. Kennedy in an interview that the idea for the story first came to him while attending a Christmas banquet at his daughters’ Episcopalian high school.
Thesis. Almost every synopsis, review, and interview transcription related to the movie imparts that the story is about a preacher who struggles with his faith (including interviews with Rick Santorum who often refers to Reverend Richmond as the ultimate doubting Thomas). While I understand where they are going with that statement, I do not think that it is an adequate description of the main idea at all. There is no indication that Richmond is on the cusp of losing his belief in God’s existence or that his faith in the redemptive power of the Cross is shaken in any way. He simply does not believe that God works miracles for man any longer. If anything, I would describe the story as the struggle of a disenchanted preacher with the superstitious enthusiasm of his new parish. The reason for my interest in establishing the theological context of the story should now be clear.
The word superstition means different things to different people, but in general it has two connotations. The traditional meaning is an excess fear of God (or the gods) often characterized by a separation between the outcome of a religious practice and the underlying reason for that practice. A more modern (and decidedly humanist) definition is the belief in any supernatural causality, which technically encompasses all religion. The practice of reciting the Rosary is a good example of this connotative difference. For the Catholic, the Rosary is a normative devotional for prayerfully meditating on the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture. The superstitious Catholic (or other person) might impute special protective powers onto a set of rosary beads, believing for example that using them (or even just possessing them) guarantees physical protection from harm. In contrast, the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian professes a belief in the power of prayer but condemns the use of rosary beads because he perceives that they are used either to circumvent God and to seek blessings from some other source, or as an attempt to force God’s grace like some sort of magic spell. At the far end of the spectrum, the atheist believes only what science reveals and considers all prayer to be superstition.
Votive candles are used by traditional Christians to represent personal prayers, usually for the intentions of others. Both Methodists and Anglicans use votives though they differ in the practice of asking for saintly intercession. This being the normal practice, Richmond observes how the villagers of Gladbury cling to legend of the Christmas Candle and the Christmas miracle it secures for the one who lights it and prays, and he condemns the legend and the practice as superstition because he believes that there is a difference between the purpose of the practice and the expected result.
And he would be right, if not for one thing: in the story, the legend is true and the miracles are real! What’s more, it doesn’t even require the person to believe in the legend. This is made clear when Richmond lights his Christmas Candle. I found no indication in the movie or the book that Richmond lit the Christmas Candle for any reason other than the simple need for light on a dark night. Whether he prayed for the safety of the lost mother and child or simply that the candle would light in the blustery snowstorm we do not know, but in the movie both he and Emily Barstow seem to be quite surprised when the Candle turns night into day so that they may find the wrecked coach.
Idolatry. I spent most of the movie trying to decide if the main theme was actually about idolatry and not superstition at all. Yes, the villagers all go to church, but they express extreme disappointment in Richmond when he does not preach about the Candle in his sermons. This certainly sounds like they had turned to a different gospel, even if it was one delivered by an angel (Galatians 1:6-10). And Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12, Vulgate) does mean “bringer of light” does it not? An iconic image of the Candle strikingly adorns the front of the priestly vestments, where one might expect to see a symbol of Christ, such as a cross or perhaps a monstrance. The same icon can be found carved on the front of the pulpit as well.
Despite several clues that this was not the case (e.g. children praying the Lord’s Prayer in front of the Candle) I finally dismissed the idea completely after reading the book. When explaining the legend of the Candle to Richmond, Edward Haddington acknowledges explicitly that the villagers credit God for the miracles. Perhaps the movie could have been more clear on this point.
Sacramentals. The Christmas Candle might properly be considered (in the context of the fictional story of course) a sacramental, which is a prayer accompanied by a specific sign (CCC 1667-1679). Obviously, the lighting of the Candle is that outward sign. Unlike the Sacraments though, a sacramental doesn’t confer God’s grace directly, but prepares one to receive and use it in cooperation with God. In the book, Bea Haddington explains that the Candle has no power of its own, but it is only a vessel. The real power belongs to God alone.
It is appropriate now to consider one key point that is treated differently between film and book. In the movie, it seems that the decision as to who should receive the Candle rests solely with the Haddingtons, that they have to power to choose at their own discretion. We discover, however, that the Candle is indeed reserved either for an intended (or dare I say predestined) recipient or at least for one who is truly in need. When Bea Haddington attempts to light the Candle with the intention of praying for their own need, noble as it may be, the flame is blown out by a mysterious breath. The message is clear: God will decide how best and by whom his gift will be used. This is presented a bit more plainly in the book: the Haddingtons are allowed to participate, but God guides them through prayerful discernment as to who should receive the candle.
Catholicism. I found more than a few commentaries that try to inject a Catholic-Protestant conflict into the story where one does not actually exist. I heartily agree that the same trappings that lead people to assume that the characters in the film are Anglican make them look very Catholic as well, but there are no references whatsoever to the primary differences in dogma, such as the means of salvation or the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Christian. Case in point, when I first read the Wikipedia entry for the movie, it stated in the Theology section the following:
The viewpoint of the movie is a mixture of Protestant and Roman Catholic theology, where the main character is struggling between the two.
Two weeks later, the last words of this line were changed to “struggling to find his lost faith”, but the notion that the movie is about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism remains. Whoever added this line may have had an agenda. Christian Fundamentalists have no use for miracles (Matthew 12:39 & 16:4) and are often just as cynical as Richmond. Indeed, that the movie portrays the Candle as real and Richmond as wrong must certainly be interpreted by them as a victory for the Roman Catholic Church.
Mr. Stephen Rives, pastor of Eastside Church of the Cross in Louisburg, Kansas expresses just that in his egregious review. Focusing completely on the doctrines of solus Christus and sola fide, he makes the argument that Richmond has lost his faith in God after the loss of his family, and though he resists the legend intellectually, he eventually relies on the miracle of the Candle as a sign to restore his faith. He is therefore accursed according to Saint Paul (Galatians 1:8). He states:
The pastor in the movie appears (at first) to want the biblical definition of faith. But it depresses him. So in the contest for a right view of Jesus, he finally embraces the Charismatic and Catholic notion of faith. And it is a package deal. He also gets a Catholic love of robes, liturgy and candles. He not only gets the Charismatic meaning of miracles, he becomes an apologist for the American desire to be touched by an angel.
Mr. Rives begins his analysis with the false assumption that Richmond is an Evangelical Fundamentalist. He wants Richmond to embrace the five solae, so much so that he has abandoned the story line altogether and tries to contort the details into an anti-Catholic message. Richmond didn’t fall in love with robes and candles after the Candle restores his faith; these were things he used from the start as either an Anglican or a Methodist minister in the normal course of worship. As for liturgy, as I have already mentioned above, there wasn’t much of that depicted in the film at all. Apologist? I don’t remember him explaining how faith in a magic candle is better than faith in Christ. Consider this quote as well:
And by being touched in holy visitation, the candle undergoes transubstantiation and becomes a self-working sacrament. The person who lights it must only make a prayer, and they automatically receive their request.
Nothing in the film or the book even implies that the Candle’s substance changes, nor is there any indication that the use of the Candle makes one holy as do the Sacraments. Pastor Rives obviously has an axe to grind with Mother Church. Indeed, he goes on to accuse Lucado of wrapping a non-Christian message with Scripture, thereby “calling all pastors everywhere to leave Christ and return to the Catholic Church in Rome.”
[As an aside, since Richmond focuses so heavily on acts of kindness, I did a brief search for commentary regarding (the false dichotomy of) faith versus love (i.e. good works of charity) with respect to the story. The results were minuscule, but I did find two items worth mentioning. The first is Max Lucado’s answers to direct interview questions that broach the topic. Lucado tells us that this is a story of hope more than anything else (i.e. the third enduring thing; 1 Corinthians 13:13), and that “God enters the world in common places and does uncommon things.” He has a plan for everyone and performs his works through common people — and of course, Catholics believe that cooperation in these works is imperative to salvation.
Lou Baldwin (CatholicPhilly.com) draws the following conclusion in his review:
Rev. [Richmond] is a former highly effective preacher, who after suffering a personal family tragedy loses his faith in intercessory prayer, concluding that only good works count.
Once I got over the consistent references to Rev. Richardson and the visual of him replacing the lectionary with the complete works of Stephen Covey, I recognized that Baldwin’s assessment is probably more accurate than most, but the latter part of the statement above is problematic. Only good works count for what? Salvation? That’s the usual context but that’s not what Catholics believe.]
Some consider The Christmas Candle a success because it fulfilled its purpose, to provide wholesome, family holiday entertainment. Christian reviewers have emphasized the spiritual benefits of the film, how it reminds audiences about the season of Advent, puts Christ back into Christmas without simply retelling the Nativity story, and brings Christians of all stripes together for the holidays. Those involved in the production of the movie had high expectations based on the audience feedback they’d received.
Having said that, it’s no secret that The Christmas Candle didn’t do very well at the box office, grossing somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 Million. The production quality of the film is good but its distribution was limited. It also received bad reviews across the board except, to everyone’s surprise, from the L.A. Times. Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com gave the film a dismal 1.5-star review and predicts that it will sink into obscurity rather than become a “perennial” favorite.
And it should come as no surprise that any film produced by religious conservative (former) politician Rick Santorum (EchoLight Studios) is unlikely to gain much favor with the secular liberal media — and that includes the film critics. Take for example Eric Nicholson’s review in the Dallas Observer. From the title alone it is clear that he wants to firmly plant in the minds of his readers the message that Rick Santorum’s film failed. The name of the film really doesn’t matter. I’d have a little more respect for his opinion if I felt like he had actually watched the movie. According to Nicholson, it is “a holiday parable about the residents of a quaint English village protecting traditional values (a miracle-producing candle) against the forces of modernity (electricity).” If you’ve read my analysis above then you’d know that this brief synopsis misses the mark by at least a few miles. At least Nicholson didn’t resort to poking fun at Santorum’s last name.
I rarely agree with the critics on any movie and I personally refuse to accept that the intrinsic quality of a film can be measured completely by its box office earnings. I enjoyed this film greatly. It gave me an opportunity to do some research and provided an interesting backdrop for my own Advent preparation. I don’t know exactly what it will take to turn this into a “classic” in the long run, but I do look forward to its release on home video formats in early 2014.