If someone asks you to pray for them, do you go get a match?
Since the early days of the church, people have lit candles as part of their prayer life. “I’ll light a candle for you” was almost as common a phrase 30 years ago as “I’ll pray for you” is today.
Vigil and votive lights are the little flickering candles we often see in church in front of sacred paintings or statues of saints. We are used to seeing candles at Mass; in fact, you cannot celebrate a Mass without them. St. Jerome wrote about candles at Mass back in the fifth century. Even earlier, we know that oil lamps and candles were left burning before the tombs of martyrs in the third century.
By the Middle Ages, some people burned candles equal to the height of the person they were praying for. It was called “measuring to a saint” and seems to date to a sixth-century saint: St. Radegund. Fr. William Saunders, a priest of the Arlington, Va., Diocese, explained that the custom reflects the “idea of the candle representing the person in faith who has come into the light to offer his prayer.”
That gets us to explaining vigil candles. Someone who asks us to pray for them probably needs prayer more than just the minute or two we might have to say a prayer for them. So, lighting a prayer candle for them in church offers a sort of a stand-in for us. We leave church, but the candle spends the rest of its life keeping vigil for our prayer.
Then there are votive lights. While we are used to using “vigil light” and “votive candle” interchangeably, a votive light is a little different. It represents an offering and a promise.
No, not the promise to pray for someone, but a promise to give something to God in gratitude for our prayer being answered. To some of us that might sound a little like bribery: “Please, God, let me get an ‘A’ on this test and I’ll light one of the big candles in church as a thank you.”
OK, it is along those lines, but runs deeper. The votive offering — which can be a candle, but can also be other things — is a thank you. Sometimes, it is a thank you offered beforehand.
Colin Donovan, vice president of theology at EWTN, explains lighting a votive candle as making an offering while placing an intention before the Lord. The candle symbolizes the intention. “The votive element is the exchange of the offering for God’s answer to their prayer,” Donovan said.
The word “votive” comes from the Latin “votum” meaning a promise made to a god or a solemn pledge. Ancient Romans would pledge things like statues to gods for victories in battle and Alexander the Great left his own armor in Athena’s temple in Troy as a votive offering.
Christians, centuries later, would make votive offerings to God or in honor of a saint under various forms. This is part of the reason Europe has so many magnificent churches. Some of them were built, and artwork inside offered, as votive offerings. For example, King Ordoño II of León offered his own palace to build Santa Maria di Leon Cathedral in gratitude to God for his 917 victory over the Moslem army.
Another form of votive offering was used to help the poor. For example, food, in the form of grain or bread, in the weight of the person who needed healing, was given to the poor.
In Mexico, votive offerings, some of wax, began to take on forms to represent what was being prayed for. Tin molds and models were used to make limbs, eyes or animals. These offerings were left at shrines and altars in petition or thanksgiving for healings — along with monetary donations as well. This was not just limited to Mexico. A famous votive offering of a replica of a falcon was placed at the shrine of St. Wulfstan in Ireland by Edward I after his favorite bird was healed.
So lighting candles has a long history of prayers and promises.
One last thing. Candles in churches and at shrines have donation boxes with them, with a suggested offering. Remember, these are just that: a suggestion. The funds pay for the candles and perhaps for some of the building’s upkeep. But donations are not required. If you need a candle and really don’t have any money for a donation, go right ahead and strike the match. No one wants us to think that we have to pay before our prayers can be heard. God listens for free, all the time.
As for the candles, maybe someone else will leave a little extra to cover what you couldn’t pay.
Let’s just hope they don’t leave tin sheep, too.
Sources: St. Anthony Messenger; Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.com; Arlington Catholic Herald; ewtn.com; fisheaters.com; americancatholic.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; sacred-destinations.com; and Catholic News Service.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press (2011). Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” is now available through Our Sunday Visitor Press.