Advent wreaths, Easter candles, the candles that signal the presence of the body at funerals and of the Body at the Eucarist, are all examples of the Church’s use of lights in and arond the liturgy. We’ve taken this practice over into secular ceremonials too, e.g. strings or colorared lights and candles at Christmas end other feasts. As with everything we do, the ceremonial use of candles goes far back in the past. The Greeks and Romans, for example, burned sanctuary lamps before ther temples. And it’s also Universal, just as they occur everywhere in the world’s folklore, light and its symbolism play an important part in the high culture of evey major civilization and every major religion. In the Jewish culture you have also the Jahrzeit candles and the lighting of candles during Shabbath and on the Menorah are very important in their culture.
But why does the Catholic Church use candles, and can you compare that with other religions and folklore?
* For an explaination of this: see my other post named “Is Catholicism Pagan?”.
Alexander the Great took a famous lampstand from a temple in Thebes that was shaped like a tree hung with fruit-shaped lamps, almost like a Christmas tree: it ended up in the temple of Apollo in Rome. Everlasting flames were kept on the menorah in the sanctuary and on the altar in the forecourt of the Temple in Jerusalem, as a symbol of the Presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, light is more than symbolic in the Old Testament. God himself inhabited the Holy of Holies as a cloud of light, the shekinah. Naturally, Christ and the Holy Spirit expressed their divine presence in the same way. Christ called Himself the Light of the World, (John 8:12 ; 9:5 ; 12:46), and at the Transfiguration, his face “shone as the Sun”(Mattew 17:2) while the Father spoke from a bright cloud, similar to the shikinah from the Holy of Holies.
And offcourse at Pentecost the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). These events, and the proghecies or Revelation (1:14-15), reinforce the idea that light indicates the presence of God. Later the Christians began to use licht en fire in association with Christian ceremonies. Back then were allready leaders that didn’t approve of the use by Christians because of the association with pagan religions. But dispite this, the people in the streets kept on using candles during funerals and lamps in the catacombs, as symbols of everlasting life, of hope, of rejoicing in the new life that had begun, ans as always, as symbols of the presence of God.
St. Jerome, the well known Church father said about this that it didn’t do any harm when Christians light candles to honour marters and saints, there is nothing wrong with lichting a candle or lamp. He warned though not to use it as the pagans do for their idols.
Offcourse it’s wrong for pagans to do this for their idols, but we are doing this as Christians, not as if the act will do us any good but only as a symbol and we know the difference.
And the Churches in the East also have burning candles when the Gospel is being read. You see this use also in Churches in the West. There is evidence of the use of candles in the Liturgy of the Church in the 4rd century, and of the use during funerals, baptisms, ordinations and offcourse during the Eucharist.
And by the 12th century A.D. candles were used in all churches. And oillamps were being replaced by candles. It was placed on the Altar do onderline the Presence of Christ at the Eucharist. During the Reformation the Protestants rejected Jerome’s guidelines and the ancient customs of the Church with regard to candles. The use of candles was officially banned, but there were Protestants who honoured the ancient practice of Christians.
And it’s different now with many Christian churches.
The symbolism of light is also very strong in the Mediterranean. There are some people who are ambivalent about the availability for the use in Churches. But it’s nothing more than an ancient use and venerable signal of watchful waiting, just like when you keep a candle on the window waiting for someone’s return. The candle can be seen also as the symbol of the Trinity, because it consists of three elements. The candlewax is also the symbol of Christ’s Body, the wick of the candle as His Soul and the flame as His Devine nature. In that way the consumption of a candle can be seen as Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Shortly later the ritual use of candles was devided into three parts that is still in use now.
1.) She symbolises God’s Presence, especially the Presence of Christ as the Light of the World, and the rejoicing of this Presence.
2.) They can be offered as an act of devotion. As votive lights.
3.) Or, if they are blessed they become sacramentals if used properly - to dispel the forces of darkness.