As people across the world [lit] Christmas candles at Christmas Eve services, my mind [went[ back to another Christmas 20 years ago in Romania, when the country was still in the grip of communist tyranny.
The story begins with Laszlo Tokes, pastor of a fast-growing reformed church in the city of Timisoara. His powerful preaching had caught the attention of communist officials, and they began a strategy of suppression. They stationed police officers around his church, machine guns cradled in their arms. They hired thugs to attack him. Finally, just before Christmas, they decided to send him into exile.
But when the police arrived to hustle Pastor Tokes away, they were stopped cold. Around the church stood a wall of humanity. Christians from around the city-Baptist, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic-had joined together to protest.
All through the day they held their post. As it grew dark, a young Baptist student named Daniel Gavra pulled out a packet of candles, lit one, and passed it to his neighbor.
Then he lit another. One by one the burning candles were passed out among the crowd. Soon the darkness of the December night was pierced by the light of hundreds of candles. When Pastor Tokes looked out his window, he saw a sea of faces lit up by a warm glow.
That night, he said later, was the "turning point in my life." He would never erase from his mind the picture of believers from all denominations joining hands in his defense.
Two days later, police finally broke through the crowd and dragged Pastor Tokes away. But that was not the end. The people now streamed to the city square and began a full-scale demonstration against the communist government.
Once again Daniel Gavra passed out his candles. Once again the night was lit by their glow.
Finally, the communist officials began to panic. They brought in troops and ordered them to open fire on the crowd. Hundreds were shot. Young Daniel felt a searing pain as his leg was blown off.
Yet the brave example set in Timisoara inspired the rest of the nation. Within days the entire population of Romania had risen up and the bloody dictator Ceausescu was gone. The churches filled with worshippers offering praise to God.
For the first time in half a century, the people of Romania celebrated Christmas in freedom.
In the hospital, Daniel Gavra celebrated while learning to walk with crutches. His pastor came by, offering him sympathy, but Daniel wasn't looking for sympathy.
"Oh, Pastor," he said softly. "I don't mind so much the loss of a leg. After all, it was I who lit the first candle."
What a powerful image for us here in America as we celebrate this Christmas-the picture of a black December night lit up by a glowing testimony to the unity of God's people.
What mighty things [we can do] when we stand shoulder to shoulder with all our brothers and sisters, ready to fight evil, prepared to give our limbs-and yes, even our lives-to light a candle in the darkness.