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Liturgical Use of Candles

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from various sources

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Candles Origin

The Perpetual Lamp symbolized God's Promise that He would always abide with His People Israel; thus the lamp flame stood for the Radiance of the Divine Presence (The Shekinah), which, in the days of Zion's vanished glory, hovered over the Holy Of Holies in the Temple Sanctuary. The Perpetual Lamp or ETERNAL LIGHT (Ner Talmid) today burns Electrically before the Ark of the Law in every Synagogue in the World, is but a Lineal Descendant of the Oil Lamp which occupied the place of honor on the central stem of the Seven-Branched Menorah in the Jerusalem Temple. In the Old Testament God commanded that a lamp filled with the purest Oil of Olives should always burn in the Tabernacle of the Testimony without the Veil. While the lamps on the other six branches were lit only at night, the central one was never allowed to go out. This is how it came by its name of "Perpetual Lamp". Perpetual Lamps or fires were also employed in other peoples' worship. A perpetual holy fire burned in the sanctuary of the famed Temple of Vesta, in Rome, tended faithfully by priestesses called Vestal Virgins.

The word candle (candela, from candeo, to burn) was introduced into the English language as an Ecclesiastical Term, probably as early as the Eighth Century . It was known in classical times and denoted any kind of taper in which a wick, not uncommonly made of a strip of papyrus, was encased in wax or animal fat. We need not shrink from admitting that candles, like Incense and Lustral Water, were commonly employed in Pagan Worship and in the rites paid to the dead. But the Church from a very early period took them into her service, just as she adopted many other things indifferent in themselves, which seemed proper to enhance the splendor of religious ceremonial.

The use of a multitude of candles and lamps was undoubtedly a prominent feature of the celebration of the Easter Vigil, dating, we may believe, almost from Apostolic Times.


Altar Candles

For Mystical reasons the Church prescribes that the candles used at Mass and at other Liturgical Functions be made of Beeswax:

candle7.jpg (13884 bytes) (1) The Pure Wax extracted by Bees from Flowers symbolizes the Pure Flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother,

(2) the Wick signifies the Soul of Christ,

(3) and the Flame represents His Divinity.

Although the Two latter properties are found in all kinds of candles, the First is proper of Beeswax Candles only. It is, however, not necessary that they be made of Beeswax without any admixture. The Paschal Candle and the Two candles used at Mass should be made "ex cera apum saltem in maxima parte" (>51%), but the other candles in "majori vel notabili quantitate ex eadem cera". As a rule they should be of white bleached wax, but at Funerals, at the Office of Tenebrae in Holy Week, and at the Mass of the Presanctified, on Good Friday, they should be of yellow unbleached wax. Candles made wholly of any other material, such as Tallow, Stearine, Paraffin, etc., are Forbidden. It constitutes a Grievous Offense to celebrate Mass without any Light.


Number of Candles at Mass

We have no documentary evidence that candlesticks were placed on the Altar during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice before the Tenth Century . Leo IV (847-855) declared that only the Relics of Saints and the Book of the Gospels might be placed on the Altar. The custom of placing candlesticks and candles on the Altar became general in the Sixteenth Century .


vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) At a Pontifical High Mass , celebrated by the Ordinary, Seven candles are lighted. The Seventh candle should be somewhat higher than the others, and should be placed at the middle of the Altar in line with the other Six . For this reason the Altar Crucifix is moved forward a little. In Requiem Masses , and at other Liturgical Services, e.g. Vespers, the Seventh candle is not used. If the Bishop celebrate outside his diocese, or if he be the Administrator, Auxiliary, or Coadjutor, the Seventh candle is not lighted.

vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) At a Solemn High Mass, i.e. when the celebrant is assisted by a Deacon and Subdeacon, Six candles are lighted.

vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) At a High Mass (missa cantata), which is celebrated without the assistance of Deacon and Subdeacon, at least Four candles are required.

vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) At low Mass celebrated by any Bishop, Four candles are usually lighted.

vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) vela-c2.gif (2466 bytes) At a strictly low Mass celebrated by any priest inferior to a Bishop, whatever be his dignity, only Two candles may be used.


It is not lawful to say Mass without lighted candles, and if the candles are in danger of being blown out by the wind, they must be protected by lanterns.



Six candles should also be lighted at Vespers and Lauds when the Office is sung on Great Feasts, but on less solemn occasions Two or Four suffice. Candles are also used in Excommunications, the Reconciling of Penitents, and other exceptional functions. They play a conspicuous part in the rite of the dedication of a church and the blessing of cemeteries, and an offering of candles is also made at the Offertory of an Ordination Mass by those who have just been Ordained. In the conferring of all the Sacraments except that of Penance , it is enjoined that candles should be lighted. At a Baptism a burning candle is put into the hand of the Catechumen or of the Godfather as representing the infant.


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A minimum of Twelve candles is prescribed for any public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament . As a rule the color of candles should be white, though gilded and painted candles are permitted under certain restrictions. In Masses for the dead however and in Holy Week yellow or unbleached wax is used. It is also fitting that the candles for Liturgical purposes should be blessed, but this is not prescribed as of obligation.


Votive Candles

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Candles were, and are, commonly used to burn before Shrines towards which the Faithful wish to show special devotion. The candle burning its life out before a statue is no doubt felt in some ill-defined way to be symbolical of Prayer and Sacrifice.


Advent Candles

candle_advent.jpg (30051 bytes) The Advent wreath is a special symbol composed of a wreath of evergreen, in a circle, with 4 candles, 3 purple and one pink.

One candle is lit every night during Advent. One purple one during the first week of Advent, the second purple one nightly during the second week, and so on, until during the fourth week all Four candles are lit. Some people also place a large white candle in the center to be lit on Christmas Day.

star4.gif (851 bytes) The purple candles are for the sorrow we feel for not Loving Jesus enough.

star4.gif (851 bytes) The pink candle is for the joy surrounding the impending birth of Jesus .

star4.gif (851 bytes) The evergreen symbolizes God is with us always and will never change.

star4.gif (851 bytes) The circle symbolizes that God is Eternal, with no beginning and no end.

star4.gif (851 bytes) The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, and soon we will celebrate the day of His Birth.


Easter/Pashcal Candle

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The Easter Candle is prepared
during the Easter Vigil Service of Light

The symbolism of Christ's triumph over the Darkness of Sin and Death is most apparent when the Paschal Candle is prepared each year during the Easter Vigil Service on Easter Eve . This is the night when Christians everywhere celebrate the passage of Jesus Christ from Death to Light. As the Sacred Triduum continues, we first gather in the Darkness to kindle a New Fire, in anticipation that we will be Inflamed with the New Hope. Christ Our Light is Proclaimed, and as the Easter Light spreads throughout the Assembly, we marvel at the Power of the Resurrection of Christ . This is the night when we attune our ears to the Power of God's Word . Like those who sit around campfires and tell stories, we gather around the Flame of the Easter Candle and share the greatest stories of our Judeo-Christian Treasury. We hear the central stories of Salvation that lead us to embrace the story of Christ's Triumph dominican.jpg (3042 bytes) over Death. "He is not here, He is risen!"

Preceding the Procession, a fire is kindled, symbolically this is the fire which ignites all Light. Traditionally, before lighting the candle from the New Fire, the candle is inscribed with a Cross, an Alpha and Omega, and the current year. This reinforces the point of Christ's Presence among us now and throughout Eternity. The following accompanies the inscribing: "Christ Yesterday and Today, the Beginning and the End, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to Him and all the ages; to Him be glory and power through every age for ever. Amen"

As the candle is carried in Procession into the Dark Nave (main body) of the Church, so Christ Lights our way out of darkness. During the Procession, the priest bears the candle and lifts it high and sings, "Christ our light," to which all respond, "Thanks be to God!" There is no missing the point! Christ is present in the midst of that Assembly. We're not pretending to reenact Christ's Physical Resurrection. We're not simply recalling an ancient event when Christ was present. The reality in the message of the Resurrection is that the Risen Christ is present here today, with and for us. We are gathered in darkness to wait and look for the Resurrection. Gradually we enter into the reality that Christ is risen and is present among us.

The Paschal Candle is placed on its stand near the Baptismal Font, as a visual reminder that in our Baptism we are Crucified and Resurrected with Christ . The candle is lighted at each celebration of Baptism , at which time small baptismal candles are lighted from it for presentation to the Baptized or Sponsor. This act is a visual reminder of the integral connection between Baptism and Easter. For funerals, the Paschal Candle is lighted and placed in its stand at the head of the casket during the funeral rite. In a visual way, the Paschal Candle proclaims the message of Romans 6:3-4,8-9 "Are you not aware that we who were Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into His Death? Through Baptism into His Death we were buried with Him, so that, just as Christ was Raised from the Dead by the Glory of the Father, we too might live a New Life. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with Him. We know that Christ, once raised from the Dead, will never die again; death has no more power over Him".


Sanctuary Light

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In the Old Testament God commanded that a lamp filled with the purest oil of olives should always burn in the Tabernacle of the Testimony without the veil. The Catholic Church prescribes that at least one lamp should continually burn before the Tabernacle, not only as an Ornament of the Altar, but for the Purpose of Worship. It is also a Mark of Honor. It is to remind the Faithful of the Presence of Christ , and is a profession of their Love and Affection. Mystically it signifies Christ , for by this material light He is represented Who is the "True Light which enlighteneth every man" (John 1:9). The lamp is usually suspended before the tabernacle by means of a chain or rope, and it should hang sufficiently high and removed from the altar-steps to cause no inconvenience to those who are engaged in the Sanctuary. It may also be suspended from, or placed in a bracket at the side of the Altar, provided always it be in front of the Altar within the Sanctuary Proper. The altar-lamp may be made of any kind of metal, and of any shape or form. According to the opinion of reputable theologians, it would be a serious neglect, involving grave sin, to leave the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament without this light for any protracted length of time, such as a day or several nights. For symbolical reasons olive oil is prescribed for the lamp burning before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament , for it is a symbol of Purity , Peace , and Godliness . Since pure olive oil, without any admixture, causes some inconvenience in the average American climate, oil containing between 60 and 65 per cent of pure olive oil is supposed to be legitimate material. Where olive oil cannot be had, it is allowed, at the discretion of the Ordinary, to use other, and as far as possible vegetable, oils. Gas and electric lights are not allowed in its stead.