A symbol of light, purity and sacrifice

By Linda Zahorik | January 29, 2014

Today the church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is also known as Candlemas day, since the blessing and procession of candles is included in today’s liturgy. Candles have been used in our liturgical celebrations for centuries. It is recorded that St. Jerome, about the year 378, spoke of candles as symbols of joy.

Blessed candles used in worship are known as “sacramentals.” They are special symbols to encourage attitudes and actions of reverence. The flame of a candle has come to represent Christ, the light of the world. The beeswax symbolizes the purity of Christ and the burning candle symbolizes a sacrifice.

Candles are placed on or near the altar. Depending on the solemnity of the Mass you may see two, four or even six candles. If a bishop is presiding at the liturgy, there is a seventh candle on the altar.

As you look around the church you will notice other types in addition to the altar candles. The most prominent may be the tabernacle candle also known as the sanctuary lamp. Usually it is encased in red glass and hangs or stands in an elaborate stand. It is an ancient practice that a lamp shall always be kept burning before the Blessed Sacrament, indicative of the presence of our Lord in the tabernacle.

Near the baptismal font you will see the paschal candle. This candle is made of pure beeswax. During the Easter Vigil, this candle is inscribed with symbols and the date, embedded with grains of incense, and lighted from a new fire. The candle is carried into the darkened church making us aware that the light of God returned to the world because of Christ’s resurrection. The paschal candle is lit for baptisms and funerals throughout the year.

If you are at the cathedral, take a look at the walls of the church. These “consecration or dedication” candles indicate the spots that were anointed with holy oil when the building was dedicated. You may find these candles in other churches as well although the practice is no longer obligatory.

The most familiar candle may be the votive candle, which we also call a vigil light. We light votive candles as a visible symbol of a prayer intention being offered about something particular, for ourselves or on behalf of someone else.

There are two types of candles that the laity take from the church to their home. The first is given at baptism. It represents the light of Christ filling the newly baptized. Usually symbols of baptism are on this candle. Some parents make it a practice to burn the candle for a few minutes on each anniversary of the child’s baptism.

The second type of candle is a “blessed candle for home use.” Growing up I remember my mother having a stock of blessed candles on hand to light whenever there was a storm. People also light the blessed candle during family prayer, when Holy Communion is being brought to someone homebound or when one is keeping vigil during times of sickness or other distress.

As we are reminded of the beauty of candles in our spiritual life, let us be rooted in Christ, the light who floods our souls with his divine presence and warms our spirit to faith, wisdom, charity and prayer.

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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