Burning at Both Ends

In the spring of 1918, a woman with a man’s name sat down in her apartment in Greenwich Village and began to write a poem. She wanted the poem to express something of the quality of her life, the kind of energy that she felt flowing around her in what felt like a new era, an era that was unfettered and unfiltered, where life felt fleeting and fragile and joy had to be clutched with both hands. She called her poem First Fig, but the poem has nothing to do with fruit or fruit trees or the fruits of our labors. Instead, it has to do with light: “My candle burns at both ends;/ It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – / It gives a lovely light!”

The woman’s name was Vincent, or at least that’s what her friends called her. We know her as Edna St. Vincent Millay, and First Fig became one of her most well-known poems. Its only 25 words perfectly encapsulate the witty, wild, devil-may-care worldview of Millay’s generation, the generation that would roar into the twenties with an eye for pleasure – pleasure now, pleasure on their own terms, pleasure no matter what the cost. Millay’s First Fig spoke particularly to the women of her age, who with their short hair and shorter hemlines heard in Millay’s verse a kind of rallying cry to be new, modern, and independent – women who could think and speak and vote and drink just as well as any man. Their candles were burning at both ends, and they were loving its lovely light for as long as it lasted.

This is a generalization, of course. Millay’s experience in the bohemian Village of the 1920’s was certainly different from that of the average housewife on a farm in Nebraska. But the world was changing, and the call of carpe diem was heard far and wide. The world seems to go through this from time to time. People have been burning candles at both ends forever, since first-century Corinth, where the apostle Paul quoted the well-known adage of his day: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. In times of chaos, in times of transition, or perhaps just from time to time, we humans long to just let go, to live without a view to the consequences, to burn and burn and burn and burn without worrying about our wick. My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!    

But burning our candle at both ends isn’t always just about wanton hedonism. Sometimes burning our candle at both ends feels like a response to the Gospel. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine before others, Jesus commands, and so we do. Or, at least, so we try. We try to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind, even when our hearts are broken, are souls are conflicted, and our minds are distracted. We try to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when some of our neighbors seem completely disinterested, and others seem to hate us more and more each day. We try to do good works, giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, even when our supplies of food and drink and clothing are low and our energy even lower. We try to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, even when we have a Super Bowl party to get ready for. We try to resist evil, even when it seems justified or harmless or just plain fun. We try to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, even when no one seems to be listening. We try to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when we feel like we’re the ones who need to be found. And we try to strive for justice and peace among all people, even when the arc of the moral universe seems to be bending toward bigotry, intolerance, and hatred. We try, we try to claim ourselves as the light of the world without counting the cost; we try to burn our candle at both ends without worrying about the wick. We try to burn our candle without thinking about the night’s darkness, to think instead only of how we can invite both friend and foe into the circle of its lovely light.

But there are times, my brothers and sisters, when the candle is just too short. There are times when our light sputters and grows dim. There are times when there doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the room, enough space in our lives, to keep preaching and feeding and loving and striving and seeking and persevering and praying. There are times when, to borrow (and frankly probably misappropriate) a phrase from Carl Sagan, “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”* Our efforts are defeated, our hearts are betrayed, our bodies are broken, our offers are rejected, and the need, the bottomless pit of need and suffering yawns ever wider. What use is our little candle, burning at both ends or not, against such darkness?

You know, the English language is a wonderful thing. It is quirky and inclusive and malleable. It is the language of Shakespeare and Cranmer and Herbert and Eliot and Frost and Millay. But it does have a few shortcomings. One of them is that we use the same word for both the second person singular and the second person plural. You can mean you, or it can mean you. Yes, our southern neighbors have y’all, and we in Philly have youse, but in written English we’re left to rely on context. Thankfully, because English was not the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we hear Jesus say “you,” we can always turn to the Greek to find out which you he means. And in this case, in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus most emphatically means youse. Youse are the light of the world. Let the light of all youse shine before others, that they may see your works and give glory to their Father in heaven, their God, their ultimate Jawn.

Okay, maybe too far with the Philly-speak…but you get the point. Jesus commands us to let our light shine before others – not our lights, but our light. We are never left alone, trying to relight our own tiny candles. The light that we are to shine before others is a light that shines through all of us, that expands and grows because we are a we. The light that shines before others is fed by the light of these holy candles, blessed this past Thursday at the feast of the Presentation, when we prayed that they would aid us in becoming “inflamed with the fire of [God’s] love.” The light that shines before others is a light born of our common life, our shared baptism, our identity as the body of Christ.

Our light is a light of we, of youse, of us. Our candle can burn at both ends because the wick of faith that connects us to each other will never run out. When we gather in faith, as a community, serve in love, as a community, and proclaim hope, as a community, our candle can burn and burn and burn and burn. Our job isn’t to figure out how to keep our personal candle burning forever; our job is to allow ourselves to be drawn back in to this youse. Our job is to claim this youse as our own, to connect here, to pray here, to serve here, to speak here, to pledge here, to go forth into the world from here, to let our light shine before others from here.

This is just wonderful news. Because it means that whenever we feel our own personal light starting to fade, all we need do is reconnect ourselves here, to this community, to this Church, to the presence of Christ that dwells here. We don’t need to be particularly holy or brilliant. We don’t need to be particularly rich or talented. We just need to be within earshot of the living Christ. You are the light of the world, Jesus said, all of youse, every single person on this mount who can hear my voice. You are the light of the world because you can hear me; you are the light of the world because you’ve put yourself here, in this community, gathered at my feet.

So find your light here. Be inflamed here. Let your light grow and brighten in this holy place, with the rest of this holy community. And then let it burn, at both ends, burning into the darkness, burning for friends and foes, burning for faith, hope, and love. Let your candle – all of youse – burn at both ends. It gives a lovely light!


Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

5 February 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


*This quotation is taken from a book of Sagan's called The Demon-Haunted World. In Sagan's writing, the candle that is burning out is society's understanding of the importance of scientific truth, but his poetry applies to my candle as well. (And Sagan's point is also an important and timely one!)

Posted on February 5, 2017 .