The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
When I was very young, my grandparents had a cottage “up North.” Those were the days before there was any underground wiring. Whenever it stormed, the power failed at the cottage because power lines were fragile and vulnerable to the many tree branches. So my grandmother kept a huge kerosene lantern filled and ready to go. Many were the times when she and I sat in the dark, with that lantern flickering between us as a storm crashed overhead.
My grandmother was wise to keep that lantern filled or I would have had to sit there with only lightning to provide light in the dark. That lantern made me feel safe as a child as it kept the shadows at bay. And it made things seem a little more normal because the lantern’s light let me play simple card games with my grandmother.
In church, we don’t have lanterns. But many churches do have votive candles, flickering by saint’s statues or in front of religious artwork. And all our churches keep a burning sanctuary light near the tabernacle. That glowing light — often red in color — burns all the time. It shines through the night and the storms, whether the encroaching darkness is an act of nature or comes from the storms that toss our personal lives.
Someone always keeps that sanctuary candle lit to remind us that Jesus is always there — both in the sacrament and walking right beside us.
The smaller votive candles can be seen as a sign of our response to that belief. Someone always seems to keep at least one burning. Votive candles are lighted as signs of prayer, devotion or thanksgiving for a blessing received. Those little flames stand as silent sentinels, taking our place after our prayers are finished and we leave church.
Today’s Gospel speaks of women who have little lanterns. The wise ones kept the oil handy, just like my grandmother. The others didn’t. And, as always happens, things got dark.
People who light votive candles aren’t necessarily any wiser than those who don’t. The wise people are the ones who remember what the candles mean — and that we are meant to turn toward the Light of the World whenever a storm blows in. (When it’s sunny, too.)
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of many books.