It’s 1890. And in the English hamlet of Gladbury in the Cotswolds, it could just as easily be 1790 or even 1690, because not much has changed there in centuries. Life is hard, and most of the town’s humble residents don’t have much more than they need to subsist.
Perhaps that’s why an angel has visited the English burgh every 25 years for two centuries now—to give Gladbury’s residents a bit of hope. This messenger from God arrives just before Christmas at the local candlemaker’s shop, touching one of the newly formed candles and transforming it into a miracle-bestowing gift given to the one person lucky enough to light it.
The candlemaker’s solemn responsibility, then, is to choose who among Gladbury’s many worthy candidates needs the miracle the most. “Light this and pray,” he would always instruct the so-called Christmas Candle’s grateful recipient. And so they would. And so the miracles always followed.
And so it has long been in Gladbury … until this year. This year, the candlemaker, Edward Haddington, trips and tips over the candle rack, jumbling the bunch and hiding the identity of the anointed candle. This year, a young new pastor, the Reverend David Richmond, has arrived to take over the pulpit in Gladbury’s lone church. And he is a man who believes fiercely that raw faith in Christ’s work—faith unbolstered by belief in ridiculous miracles—is what saves and gives hope. This year, electricity finally comes to the heretofore candlelit Gladbury, a technological marvel that just may render faith in miracles a thing of the past.
The Rev. Richmond is a talented pastor who’s abandoned preaching (after a personal tragedy) in favor of working for the Salvation Army in London. So he’s working out his own salvation by serving soup to the downtrodden when he’s unexpectedly recruited by one of Gladbury’s patrons, the Lady Camdon, to fill her town’s empty pulpit. Richmond is convinced his pastoral days are over, telling her, “This is my pulpit now: soup, soap and salvation.” Indeed, he’s just helped a young, single, pregnant woman find lodging with the Salvation Army after she lost her job and her apartment.
Lady Camdon is undeterred. She’s convinced that David should preach again. “I’ll never forget David Richmond, the miracle man. In the midst of my own great loss, it was your words that revived my faith. Any able-bodied man can serve a bowl of soup. But few men have a gift like yours. My only hope is that you choose to serve where your gift is needed most.”
Responding to Rev. Richmond’s urging, many townspeople begin helping their neighbors, fixing leaking roofs, landscape walls, etc. Which brings us to …
… the fact that everyone in town has important lessons to learn and share about a God who rewards steadfast faith and service in dark times. The core conflict in The Christmas Candle revolves around the purpose and place of miracles in the Christian faith. Richmond, we learn, has turned his back on the idea of miracles when he lost his family to consumption. He clings tenaciously to his faith, but he refuses to continue praying for God’s direct intervention, choosing instead to “become the miracle” himself through physically helping others.
The good people of Gladbury, in contrast, know nothing of that kind of selfless service. Instead, they look only to the glow of a magical candle in their midst. And so the reverend strives mightily to help his congregation see that their faith in the Christmas Candle’s miracles is hindering their faith in Christ Himself. In his first sermon, he tells his shocked flock, “Jesus said, ‘Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father, which is in heaven.”
He preaches these words as he gives a glass of water to a coughing congregant, then continues: “Candles belong on candlesticks, giving light to everyone. What then is this light that draws men to our heavenly Father? Is it signs and wonders? Angels and miracles? Of course not. It is our good works that shine before men and glorify our Father in heaven.”
In another advent service, he intones, “We light this [ordinary] Christmas candle to remind us that our hope does not come from earthly things, but from above. From the God who came to us one starry night in Bethlehem and promised to come again one day. And that, good people of Gladbury, is miracle enough.”
But his is not the last word on the matter, and the film strives to present a balanced picture of both everyday good works and the exceptional nature of the miraculous. When he angrily demands, “Why one Christmas candle and not 50? Why doesn’t this angel come once every year, or every Thursday afternoon for tea? And why in all of God’s green earth, Gladbury?” Mr. Haddington retorts, “Why Bethlehem? Why a babe in a manger? Who could possibly hope to understand the ways of the Lord?” We also hear the pastor reading about the many miraculous events documented in Scripture.
We do witness the angel blessing the Christmas Candle—and then we watch what happens when not one, but 29 townspeople all think they have the special stick of wax. (Edward Haddington and his wife, Bea, trick them into thinking so.) But the results aren’t all bad. Because it’s right about then that the reverend begins reminding his flock that they can “be the miracle” to their friends and neighbors. And so they begin to be.
[Spoiler Warning] After much indecision and several false starts, Bea and Edward eventually give the Christmas Candle to Rev. Richmond—who uses its power to once again help the young pregnant woman he had helped earlier. (We see it generate a miraculous bubble of sorts that lights the way to the trapped woman, who has been in a carriage accident.)
It’s worth noting here that the movie invites us to view the Christmas Candle as more than merely an inanimate object with magical powers. Instead, it becomes a symbolic emblem of what God can do, a rock solid reminder of His power. And its power is about more than just solving human problems. Richmond, you see, initially finds a partner in skepticism in a young woman named Emily Barstow, whose father is on the verge of dying. She thinks of the Candle’s stories as “old wives’ tales”—right along with the stories in the Bible. But it’s though the minister’s own journey toward greater, more well-rounded faith that her own faith is awakened.
To the unwed mother, a woman scolds, “You should have kept your affections to yourself.” A mild joke is made about seeing the pastor’s underpants. A couple kisses.
A fire in the church results in an older congregant having a heart attack and dying as he tries to extinguish the flames. And as mentioned, a young woman is trapped in a carriage that has overturned in a storm.
Hollywood holiday-themed movies typically aim at a broad audience with feel-good stories that emphasize equally feel-good themes about love and the importance of family. Sometimes these movies are nice. Sometimes they’re naughty. Often they’re deeply secular, with only rare references to the real reason for the Christmas season, substituting sleighfuls of Santa and mistletoe instead.
The Christmas Candle is not one of those movies.
Based on the popular novel by Max Lucado, this film stands in sharp contrast to the shallow, Santa-saturated sentimentality that surrounds it, offering up a significant spiritual question: What is the role of miracles in the world today?
David Richmond’s sermons challenge Gladbury’s sometimes superstitious residents to place their hope and faith solely in Christ, not in the miracles they’ve come to expect from the Christmas Candle. And he helps them see how they can become “miracles” to one another through attentive love and service—strongly and rightly reinforcing the notion that our faith should lead to action.
After giving Rev. Richmond the pulpit for a good long Sunday sermon’s worth of time, however, the film then pairs his insistence upon active, practical faith with the reminder that God does still answer prayers, sometimes in startling ways. Sometimes even with a heavenly miracle.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.