Liturgical Use of Candles
from various sources
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
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.
For Mystical reasons the
Church prescribes that the candles used at Mass
and at other Liturgical Functions be made of Beeswax:
(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 .
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.
At a Solemn High Mass, i.e. when the celebrant is assisted by a Deacon and
Subdeacon, Six candles are lighted.
At a High Mass (missa cantata), which is celebrated without the assistance
of Deacon and Subdeacon, at least Four candles are required.
At low Mass celebrated by any Bishop,
Four candles are usually lighted.
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.
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.
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.
The Advent wreath is a special symbol composed of a wreath of evergreen, in a circle, with
4 candles, 3 purple and
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
The purple candles are for the sorrow we feel for not Loving Jesus
The pink candle is for the joy surrounding the impending birth of Jesus
The evergreen symbolizes God is with us always and will
The circle symbolizes that God is Eternal, with no
beginning and no end.
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.
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
"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.
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".
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.