Why do we use candles in church? The word “candle” comes from the Latin verb “candeo” meaning to shine, glow, or burn. We use candles on the Altar, near the tabernacle, during our liturgies, for votives and devotionals to name a few.
The Paschal Candle is unique and easy to recognize by its size. It can be several feet tall and decorated with ornate images, a cross, and the liturgical year. At the Easter Vigil, a new Paschal Candle is lit and blessed in expectation of Christ rising from the darkness of the tomb to the light of the Resurrection. During the Vigil, people light small candles as a reminder to reflect the Light of Christ in their lives. The Paschal Candle is lit throughout the year for Baptisms, funerals, and during the entire Easter Season.
Using candles on the Altar began sometime before the 12th Century. These candles not only remind us of the Light of Christ, but also of the many persecuted Christians in the first centuries who secretly celebrated Mass at night or in the catacombs with the only light being candle light. It was the fortitude and perseverance by those Early Christians that helped our Faith survive and thrive into the 21st Century.
The Sanctuary Candle is seen near the tabernacle in the Church to remind us of Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. It has its roots in the Old Testament when God commanded the Israelites to burn an oil lamp before the Tabernacle of the Testimony, which is the tent where the Arc of the Covenant and sacred vessels used in worship were kept (Exodus 27:20). If this lamp signaled to the Israelites a sacred presence, then how much more aware should we be of the holiest space in a Catholic Church – the tabernacle – where God is truly present in the Eucharist?
We light votive and devotional candles before images and statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints not as a sign of worship, but as a symbol of our light of faith in asking God for help. The flame of these candles is symbolic of the fires of Old Testament offerings of burnt sacrifice, petitions, adoration, or reparation of sins. Although we see these candles in church, we can also use them in our home for prayer.
There are many more uses of candles in our faith, too many to list in this limited space. But while we can certainly pray and worship without candles, the physical act of lighting a candle touches our human senses to help bring our entire self – body, mind, and soul – closer to God. Candles are a part of our rich Catholic tradition used to represent the sacred character brought into our prayers and liturgies by Jesus Christ – the True Light.
For “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness…If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7.)” May you have a Blessed week walking in the Light of the Lord.
Adapted from CatholicCompany.com