This past Christmas, we revived an ancient custom of prayer candles in our Narthex. But, as with everything else we do, I thought it would be edifying to remind us all of why we practice our Christian lives as we do!
Candles are widely used in Christian worship, having strong roots in both the Eastern and Western Church, dating back to the Hebrew church we stem from.
They are lighted during liturgical services and at other times. The use of candles on the altar developed out of processional lights which were in earlier times placed beside or on the altar and permeate the prayer and devotional life of the Church.
Votive candles, like those in our Narthex, are candles lit as personal offerings, and to obtain the agreement in prayer commended to us in Holy Scripture. In our tradition from the Church of England (Anglican) the use of lights dates to the earliest times of the Church.
In Hebrew practice, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple and the synagogues not only to ensure the ability to light other candles or oil lamps in the evening but also to show the presence of God (Exodus 27:20-21 and Leviticus 24:24). Later, the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other writings of Sacred Scripture were kept, to show reverence to the Word of God...the antecedent for our practice of having a lit candle near the tabernacle to indicate the presence of and to show reverence for the Reserve Sacrament--and the Presence of the Light of the World, our Incarnate Word.
Christians adapted the use of lit candles (or even oil lamps) for Mass, prayer offices, liturgical processions, evening prayer ceremonies, funeral processions and, again, to show reverence to the Reserve Sacrament kept in the parish tabernacle. Moreover, there is evidence that lit candles or oil lamps were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s. This practice probably existed well before our available written evidence.
In our tradition, in early times as well as today, light has a special significance. Recall Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. No follower of Mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life" (St. John 8:12) and "I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in Me from remaining in the dark" (St. John 12:46).
Moreover, the prologue of St. John's Gospel connects Christ and true life with the imagery of light: "Whatever came to be in Him found life, life for the light of men" and "The real light which gives light to every man was coming into the world" (St. John 1:4, 9).
For this reason, in our liturgy for Holy Baptism, the priest presents a candle lit from the Paschal candle, which in turn symbolizes the Paschal mystery, declaring to the newly baptized (or their sponsors, in the case of children), "The Light of Christ."
The light, then, is a symbol of faith, truth, wisdom, virtue, grace, the divine life, charity, the ardor of prayer and the sacred presence which flow from Christ Himself. Medieval writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: bees wax symbolized the purity of Christ (since all the worker bees were virgin), the wick, the human soul of Christ, and the light, His divinity. They also recall the menorah of the Hebrew and the times when we had to meet in secret to avoid capture!
With this background, we can appreciate the usage of votive candles. Here, as in early Christian times, we light a candle to signify our prayer, offered in faith coming into the light of God. With the light of faith, we petition our Lord in prayer and leave the light burning to remind us that the prayers of the Faithful always burn brightly before the Great Throne. The light also shows a special reverence and our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.
Finally, the burning candle symbolized a sacrifice, which is made in both the offering of the prayer and the acceptance of the Lord's Will.
In all, the usage of votive candles is a pious practice which continues today in many churches. The symbolism does remind us that prayer is a "coming into" the light of Christ, allowing our souls to be filled with His light, and letting that light bum on in our souls even though we may return to our other activities.
The use of a multitude of candles and lamps was undoubtedly a prominent feature of the celebration of the Easter vigil, dating, we may believe, almost from Apostolic times. Eusebius (Vita Constant., IV, xxii) speaks of the "pillars of wax" with which Constantine transformed night into day, and Prudentius and other authors have left eloquent descriptions of the brilliance within the churches.
However, it’s always important to understand the “devotion behind the motions!”
Sustain Prayers, Obtain Agreement, Build Community
The main function of votives or vigil lights -- is to maintain the intention of prayers, usually for a specific issue or person. Those who light them usually say a prayer over one candle at a time, and by keeping these individual candles lit for extended periods of time reminds us that we “pray without ceasing” and also calls others to agree with us in prayer, through the Holy Ghost, amplifying our prayers through their agreement, while at the same time building the parish prayer community. This contributes to a collective spirit of prayer for the entire parish that is comforting and empowering, because even when parishioners leave, their testimony remains in the Church -- and others may pray over the candles later.
From ancient times, Christians have also used candles as a remembrance of the deceased, especially their loved ones. They light them, especially on November 1 for All Saints' Day to honor every saint and departed loved ones. The candle remains burning as a testimony to the eternal life of the Faithful Departed and recalls 2 Corinthians 5… “absent from the body...at home with the Lord.”
Symbolize the Light of Christ
Candles are also lit to symbolize the light of Christ and the Holy Trinity at ongoing worship services such as the prayer Offices or Mass, as well as sometimes at informal intercession. Our candles are fueled with rendered beeswax to symbolize the purity of Christ. Traditionally, liturgical candles must be lit before service begins, and they are not extinguished until after the service, but votive candles, as tools for focusing prayers, are left burning…in our case, before the Narthex cross, not only to ask for agreement in the Spirit with each others’ prayers, but also as a testament to Christ’s Light in our lives for those entering and exiting the parish.
Honor Special Occasions
Special occasions are often marked by the lighting of candles sometimes even for small groups of people gathered to celebrate or worship, or as part of a liturgy for the whole parish, or on a special feast or occasion, such as a wedding, baptism, confirmation, birthday, anniversary, or other life event we want to celebrate or sustain in prayer,and recall Acts 17: “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’”
Ancient devotions, certainly. But powerful when done in Spirit and Truth. All for the Kingdom!