Like many liturgical practices, candle lighting began as a practical activity. It was how people turned the lights on before electricity. Early Christians illuminated the catacombs with candles. (In the same way, the lavabo—the ritual washing of the priest’s hands at the altar—was a pragmatic way to remove the residue of the people’s offering, which arrived in the sanctuary not as a basket of sanitary envelopes but as livestock and foodstuffs.)
Candles also had symbolic significance. They were placed on martyr’s graves or near saints’ images to testify that the light these holy ones bear still shines in eternity. A perpetual light at the altar acknowledges the constancy of the Real Presence. A light similarly burns near the Book of the Gospels. Votive lights at a shrine represent the prolongation of our prayer before God.
After electricity became standard, candlelight remained a fixture in both liturgy and devotions. The premiere candle in any church is also the largest: the paschal candle, blessed and lit from the new fire each year at the Easter Vigil. The paschal candle represents the light of Christ illuminating the hearts of the faithful. Five grains of incense embedded in the wax recall the wounds of Christ. As the deacon or priest carries the light forward in procession, the phrase “Light of Christ” is chanted three times, with the assembly’s reply: “Thanks be to God.” Individual candles dispersed through the assembly are lit from the paschal candle so testify that all share in the divine light.
The paschal candle is plunged into the baptismal font to bless the waters used for baptisms. Fire and water unite in this sign, reminding us of other Kingdom paradoxes: the last will be first, the poor will be blessed, and the dead will rise. At the celebration of every baptism, a candle is given to each baptismal candidate to acknowledge the light of Christ within them.
Advent, the season of light, is counted down with the violet- and rose-colored candles of the Advent wreath. Another liturgy in which candles hold a special place is the Presentation of the Lord, also called Candlemas (February 2nd). Candles were blessed on this feast which recalls the day the infant Jesus, the light of the world, was brought to the temple. This feast, honored since the 4th century, historically ended the Christmas cycle. On the following day, the memorial of St. Blaise, unlit candles are used to bless the throat and intercede for healing.
Scriptures: Genesis 1:3-5; Isaiah 9:1; Matthew 5:14-16; John 1:3-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36; Ephesians 5:8-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; 1 John 1:5-7
Books: From the Beginning to Baptism: Scientific and Sacred Stories of Water, Oil, and Fire, by Linda Gilber, O.P. (Liturgical Press, 2010)
Signs and Symbols of the Liturgy: An Experience of Ritual and Catechesis, by Michael Ruzicki, et. al. (Liturgy Training Publications, 2018)