Candles have a myriad of purposes, from illumination to bringing a clean or memorable scent to any area, most households have numerous candles. When thinking about candles in the realm of religion, most religious institutions utilize candles in ceremonies or to lend a certain ambiance to their place of worship. Catholics look at candles in a very different…light.
Why do Catholics Light Candles? There are several reasons for lighting candles. Candles symbolize the light of Christ, they extend our prayers, they allow us to remember those who have passed, and they honor special occasions.
When you enter a Catholic church, you will be hit with the beauty and majesty of the interior, which is normally illuminated with numerous candles and candle displays. Though these displays will vary somewhat from location to location, votives are prominently displayed for parishioners to light when coming into the sanctuary.
Though candles do add to the beauty and ambiance inside the church, there are other more significant reasons that Catholics light candles.
Remembering those who have passed
We have all heard a relative saying something to the effect of, “I am going to light a candle for Uncle Joe” who may have passed recently. Candles are not only meant to honor the dead but can be included as part of an offering. These can be lit in a family alter, or at a votive display in the church.
Candles for the departed are lit specifically on November 1st, which is All Saints’ Day and honors past saints. These candles remain lit through All Souls’ Day. Offerings include flowers or mementos of those who have passed.
The lighting of candles can signify special occasions within Catholic churches. During these occasions, secondary or private alters are set up within the church to honor the specific occasion. This could be for honoring a specific saint, in which case the alters and items are set up near the statue of the specific saint being honored. Other offerings, such as flowers or artwork may be included in the display.
Candles set up on alters can be votives or taller, longer lasting candles in glass containers. These candles can be for small groups or as part of a liturgy for the entire congregation.
The most popular function of a number of small, glass candles- often displayed in racks or stands- known as vigil lights or votives- is to prolong the prayers for an issue or person. When lighting, a person will say a prayer over one candle at a time and by having the candle lit for an extended period of time- the lighter feels that the prayer is also being prolonged and amplified. This also amplifies the intentions of the other believers’ prayers as well.
By having a candle display, believers feel that there is a collective spirit of prayer happening- not only for the entire church, but those who enter as well because, even when the churchgoers leave, the prayers remain within the church, being prolonged through the candles and the prayers of others who are also lighting candles and praying.
Some churches charge a fee, or sell, votives and pillar candles. This varies from $1 per candle and up. Some churchgoers feel that there should be no charge for the lighting of candles- but others understand that churches use these funds to keep the candles stocked in most cases. Some churches allow parishioners to bring their own candles- but in the times that we live in most have stopped this practice for fear of those who may wish to do harm to the church.
Symbolize the Light of Christ
Candles are lit in Catholic churches to symbolize the Light of Christ and the Holy Trinity at liturgies or worship services. This could be during Mass, or other official services held within the church. The candles used are usually made of beeswax to symbolize the purity of Christ.
The candles that are used vary depending on the occasion and type of Clergy that is presiding over the Mass. This can vary in number and in actual placement. Candles are normally lit before the beginning of Mass and burn until after the service is concluded.
The burning of candles is a very important tradition in the Catholic community. Candle burning goes back to the times of the Old Testament when oil lamps were lit to keep perpetual flames burning
19 All the instruments of the tabernacle in all its service, and all its pins, and all the pins of the court, shall be of brass.
20 “You shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. 21 In the Tent of Meeting, outside the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall keep it in order from evening to morning before Yahweh: it shall be a statute forever throughout their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel. Exodus 27:19-20)
as a perpetual incense before the Lord from generation to generation
7 “Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. 8 He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:7-8)
and as a lamp stand in the Tent of Meeting… set up before the Lord as He has commanded Moses
24 He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, 25 and set up the lamps before the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Exodus 40:24-25).
This is further highlighted in the New Testament in Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews.
“A first tent was prepared with the lamp stand, the table and the bread of the presence; this is called the Holy Place” (Hebrews 9:2). In today’s tradition, this light symbolizes Christ who said, “I am the Light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life” (John 8:12).
The lighting of candles plays a significant role in most parts of Catholic rituals and celebrations. They are lighted during Mass, on liturgical and funeral processions and during evening prayer ceremonies. Candles are also lit to signify the Lord’s presence before the Tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament and to call for reverence on the part of the faithful.
When a person is initiated into the Church during the Sacrament of Baptism- a candle is lit from the Paschal Candle- the symbol of Christ’s Paschal Mystery- His passion, His death, and His resurrection. The person receives the Light of Christ so that he may live and walk the path of God’s children and keep the flame of faith burning alive within his heart. As he receives this indelible mark of the baptism, he shall meet the Lord and be one with all the saints in Heaven when the right time comes.
The candles are lighted before an image of our Lord and before the saints. Catholics practice this not to honor the image itself but the one it represents. The lighted candle symbolizes a prayer offering where we present our petitions to the Lord and ask the saints to pray with us and to pray for us during our most dire need. This light, as it is kept burning, also shows our desire to remain in God’s presences as we go through our daily duties at home and in the workplace.
Candles which are lit before Christ’s image shows our reverence to Him who deserves our adoration and thanksgiving and who alone can forgive our sins and bring us back into a deeper relationship with Him. Let us then bear in mind that as we celebrate our sacred liturgies, our sacraments and our special prayers, Christ, the Source of all Light, shall come to us to be ever present to strengthen us, instruct us, inspire us, and give us hope that His Light will never burn out as long as we live in Faith without a shadow of a doubt that darkness will never defeat us.
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