altar candles 



THE use of lights as an adjunct to worship goes back to the beginning of the Church, and even farther. Among the Jews and in many pagan rites the use of lights had long been looked upon as appropriate in connection with public homage to their God or gods. It is probable that among Christians they were first employed simply to dispel darkness, when the sacred mysteries were celebrated before dawn, as was the custom, or in the gloom of the catacombs; but the beautiful symbolism of their use was soon recognized by the writers of the early Church.


The Symbolism of Candles.

Light is pure; it penetrates darkness; it moves with incredible velocity; it nourishes life; it illumines all that comes under its influence. Therefore it is a fitting symbol of God, the All Pure, the Omnipresent, the Vivifier of all things, the Source of all grace and enlightenment. It represents also our Blessed Savior and His mission. He was "the Light of the world,"[John 8:12, NAB] to enlighten "them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death."[Luke 1:79, NAB; see also Matthew 4:16 , NAB.]

1John 1:5 "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." NRSV, NAB.

Even the use of wax has its symbolic meaning. The earlier Fathers of the Church endeavored always to seek out the mystical significance of Christian practices, and one of them thus explains the reason for the Church's law requiring candles to be of wax:

"The wax, being spotless, represents Christ's most spotless Body; the wick enclosed in it is an image of His Soul, while the glowing flame typifies the Divine Nature united with the human in one Divine Person."
[A Paschal Candle is a special candle used during the Easter Season to represent the resurrected Christ. During the Easter Vigil, this candle is lighted from a new fire and carried into the darkened church by a deacon or priest. The darkness represents the world without God, and the candle is the light of God returning because of Christ's resurrection. Then people following in procession light small candles, tapers, off the large one which eventually illuminates the church. This candle is also used at baptism and a funeral. Paschal Candles have special decorations to indicate who is represented.]


[In addition, the flame, and thus fire, is a symbol of God according to scripture:
Acts 7:30 "Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight; and as he approached to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 'I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." NRSV, NAB.
Matt. 3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." NRSV, NAB.
Acts 2:1 "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." NRSV, NAB.
Deut. 4:32 "For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? 33 Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived?" NRSV, NAB.
1Kgs. 18: 24 [Elijah said] "then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God." All the people answered, "Well spoken!" NRSV, NAB.
Ps. 68:2 "As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God." NRSV, NAB.
Heb. 12:29 "...for indeed our God is a consuming fire." NRSV, NAB, quoting Deut. 4:24 NIV, NAB.
Rev. 2:18 "These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire..." Emphasis added.] NRSV, NAB.
[Therefore, the candles burning next to the ambo or altar should remind us especially of the tongues of fire that appeared above the apostles when the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. Just as God was present in them, he is present in the Word of God, and at the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist.]


The Blessing of Candles.

On the second of February the Church celebrates the festival of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, which may be considered as the conclusion of the series of feasts that center around the stable of Bethlehem. Christmas Day presents to us the birth of the Redeemer; the Epiphany commemorates His manifestation to the Gentiles; and the Purification reminds us of the offering of our Savior in the Temple by His Blessed Mother, as the Victim who should reconcile God and man. This day has been chosen by the Church for a very important ceremony, the solemn blessing of candles, whence the day is often called Candlemas -- the Mass of the candles.

Why is this ceremony performed on the feast of the Purification? Probably because on or about that day the Roman people, when pagan, had been accustomed to carry lights in processions in honor of one of their deities; and the Church, instead of trying to blot out entirely the memory of this pagan festival, changed it into a Christian solemnity -- thereby honoring the Blessed Mother of God by assigning to one of her feast days the solemn blessing of candles for Christian services. [However, candles may be blessed on other days as well.]

[The Blessing of candles outside the liturgy:
"God of power, who enlightens the world and dispels the darkness of ignorance and sin, (as we remember the Virgin Mother of your Son (or Saint N.) let the light of these candles illuminate our hearts and minds, that they may reflect always the splendor of Christ, who is Lord, for ever and ever. Amen." The Shorter Book of Blessings, Catholic Book Publishing (1990) p. 501. Although this blessing would normally be given by a priest or Deacon, a lay person could say it if clergy are not available. In this case don't make a sign of the cross like the clergy might do, but you could make the sign on yourself.]
The Uses of Blessed Candles.

Candles are used at the administration of all the sacraments except Penance -- for all the others are usually given solemnly, while Penance is administered privately. They are lighted at mass and other church services, at the imparting of certain blessings, in processions and on various other occasions.

The custom of placing lighted candles on our altars goes back, probably, only to about the eleventh century -- before which time they were left standing in tall candlesticks on the floor of the sanctuary, or in brackets affixed to the walls.

[The current Instruction to the Roman Missal says that the altar furnishings require candles.

"117.The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used...
307. The candles, which are required at every liturgical service out of reverence and on account of the festiveness of the celebration (cf. above, no. 117), are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful's clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it."]
[See also, CCC 1154 and CCC 1189.]


Votive Candles.

The use of votive candles has become very general in our churches, especially during the last few years. They are usually not blessed candles, and are, therefore, not sacramentals. It is customary to use for this purpose stearic candles, which are made of other material than wax. They are commonly placed in large numbers in a candleholder of special form, before some statue or shrine, and are lighted by the people themselves, who give a suitable donation for the privilege.

A "votive" candle signifies literally that the lighting is done in fulfillment of a vow (Latin, "votum"), although in most cases the intention is merely to give honor and to manifest devotion to the saint before whose image the candle is lighted.

Such is the spirit of our Church in regard to blessed candles. The faithful in general have come to look upon them as among the most efficacious of the sacramentals. Every Catholic home should have one or more, to be used when the sacraments are to be administered...


hanging sanctuary lampLamps in Our Churches.

It may be well to mention here the use of lamps as an adjunct to Catholic worship -- for, though they are not sacramentals, they have had from very early times a sacred character. In the catacombs they were used not only to give light but to honor the remains of martyrs, being burned constantly before their tombs.

It is an ancient and universal rule that a lamp shall be kept burning always before the Blessed Sacrament, wherever It is reserved. This is known as the sanctuary lamp...

Can. 940 "A special lamp is to burn continuously before the tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved, to indicate and to honor the presence of Christ." 1983 Code of Canon Law. [Since the word lamp in the canon is not defined, a candle is often used. It is inserted into a red glass container.]

Sanctuary lamps are often of very beautiful and costly design, and are usually suspended before the altar on which the Blessed Sacrament is kept. They are arranged, in most cases, with a counterweight device, so that they may be easily lowered for convenience in filling.

It is a pious custom to keep lamps burning elsewhere in our churches -- before altars and images of saints and before their relics. In many European churches such lights are found in great profusion; and the shrines of favorite saints are often illumined with hundreds of them, while in many cases the altar of the Blessed Sacrament has only the one lamp which the Church's law requires, although He Who dwells thereon is infinitely greater, infinitely more worthy of honor and love even than the holiest of his servants."

[To see candles and altar furnishings, you can go to  Almy.]

Candles in the Catholic Encyclopedia. [However, remember this was published long before the Second Vatican Council.]

Except for the material in brackets, the quoted text is by Rev. John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church, P.J. Kenedy & Sons (1918). Imprimatur +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of NY, March 27, 1918. The votive candle photo is by Roger Smith.

The text and images are presented here for religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended.

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