Externals of the Catholic Church – 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 Saviour and His mission. He was “the Light of the world,” to enlighten il them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

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.”

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 centre 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 Saviour 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.

The prayers which are used in this blessing are quaint and beautiful, and express well the mind of the Church and the symbolic meaning of the candles. God, the Creator of all things, Who by the labor of the bees has produced this wax, and Who on this day fulfilled His promise to blessed Simeon, is besought to bless and sanctify these candles, that they may be beneficial to His people, for the health of their bodies and souls; that the faithful may be inflamed with His sweetest charity and may deserve to be presented in the Temple of His eternal glory as He was in the temple of Sion; and that the light of His grace may dispel the darkness of sin in our souls.

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.

At Masses, candles are used as follows: At a solemn Mass six are lighted on the altar. At a “Missa Cantata,” sung by one priest, four are sufficient. At a Pontifical Mass, sung by a bishop in his own diocese, seven are lighted. Four are used at a bishop’s private Mass, and two at all other Masses. These rules, however, do not prohibit the use of more candles on occasions of special solemnity. Bishops and certain other prelates have the right to use a reading-candle, called a “bugia,” at their Masses.

At Vespers, six candles are lighted on the more solemn feasts; four only will suffice on other days. In the processions to the sanctuary before solemn services two candles are borne by acolytes, and these are also carried to do honor to the chanting of the Gospel and to the singing of certain parts of Vespers, etc.

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 candle-holder 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; and when death approaches, it is a beautiful and pioua custom to place in the hand of the dying Catholic a blessed candle, the light of which is an image of the faith which he has professed before the world, the grace which God has given to his soul, and the eternal glory to which he is destined.

Lamps 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. The oil used in it must be olive oil; but if this cannot be easily obtained, the bishop may permit the use of other oils; these, however, must be vegetable oils, except in case of absolute necessity, when, by a very recent decree, other substitutes may be used. In our country the use of cotton-seed oil is common, either pure or mixed with olive and other oils.

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 Sanctuary and before their relics. In many European Lamp 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 than even the holiest of His servants.