If you notice, Catholics tend to use a lot of candles, from the altar, in front of statues, near the Tabernacle, and even a dedicated station or stand inside or near the church just for candles. You’ll also see them at every mass, celebration, and ceremony held in the church. So what exactly are candles for, and why do Catholics always light one? Let me explain in this article.
Catholics light candles as they represent Christ, the light of the world, who guides us through the darkness and light up our lives. They bring light and fire, too, representing God’s power and presence. Plus, they can be a way to offer a prayer, pay our respects, and remember our departed loved ones.
See, there are plenty of reasons why Catholics light candles. Lighting candles can also have different meanings and symbolisms, depending on the type of candles used. So to understand all these better, make sure to continue reading below.
What Does Lighting a Candle Symbolize in the Catholic Church?
Lighting candles have always been an important practice in Christianity, particularly in the Catholic Church. What was once a simple way to illuminate an area has become a significant symbol in our religion. So what exactly does it mean to Catholics?
1. Christ, the light of the world
For Catholics, light represents Jesus Christ. He confirms this himself by saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) John further connects the image of light with Jesus in the Bible passage John 1:4, where he states: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
So by lighting candles, we acknowledge Jesus Christ’s presence and love. It’s also a way for us to unite and get closer to him.
2. Jesus’ resurrection and new life
There are different candles, and they can have different meanings and purposes. A Paschal candle, for example, symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus and his triumph over death. Because of this, it is seen as a symbol of new life and hope.
You’ll see this type of candle lit during the Easter Vigil. When all lights are out during the procession, it is the single lighted candle. This is a strong representation of the risen light of Jesus Christ overcoming the darkness. This is also the candle used for baptisms, symbolizing a person’s new life in Jesus Christ.
3. Offering, petitioning, and thanksgiving
In the Catholic tradition, there are also votive candles. These are the candles we light in a specific station or stand in the church. They serve as offerings before we ask for a favor from God. We usually accompany the lighting of these candles with prayers.
The same goes when we light these candles in front of a saint’s statue. Contrary to what others accuse us of, this practice doesn’t mean that we worship saints. Instead, we use these candles to present the saints with our petition and request for them to pray with us and for us, and help us with our needs.
That said, some also light candles as a sign of their gratitude to God for an answered prayer.
4. Extending prayers
We also use votive candles to extend our prayers for a particular person or issue. When a candle is lit, we say a prayer over it. In our mind, this will continue to burn long after we leave it. In a way, this makes us feel like our prayers are being extended, remaining inside the church even when we are no longer there. As a result, our prayers and intentions are amplified.
5. Remember the departed
Candles are also used to remember and honor those who have already passed away. We light them up at a votive stand or display in the church or the altar of our homes. This is common during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Is Lighting a Candle a Catholic Tradition?
The Church, through the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, has specific guidelines on the use of candles, stating:
“On or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles; at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used.” (#117)
That said, lighting candles is an important tradition in the Catholic Church. It is part of our rituals and celebrations, which is why you always see them during mass, sacraments, funerals, liturgical processions, and prayer ceremonies. These candles and their flames signify that the area where they burn is holy and filled with God’s presence.
The use of candles, specifically fire and light, can be traced back to how Christians and Jews worship. This can be found in the book of Exodus (Exodus 27:19-20) and Leviticus (Leviticus 6:13), where God says to keep a fire burning continuously. In Judaism, this “perpetual fire” symbolizes two things: undying devotion and a holy area where God dwells.
This tradition was continued by early Christians and adapted by the Catholic Church, which is why there’s at least one lamp or candle that burns continuously around the Tabernacle. Just like what all the candles around the Church mean, it also signifies God’s divine presence.
What Candles Are Used in Catholic Churches?
As mentioned above, there are different types of candles Catholics use. The most recognizable are votive candles, which can be used for individual prayers, thanksgiving, and remembering the departed, and the Paschal candle. This is the largest candle lit during Easter Mass and is used throughout the year, particularly during baptisms, funerals, confirmations, and the other sacraments.
The other candles are the following:
- Tea candles: These are small candles usually used for illuminating statues.
- Taper candles: These candles are lit during masses, celebrations, and other rites in the church.
- Candlemas candles: These candles signify the time when Jesus Christ went to the temple of Jerusalem.
- Glass sanctuary candles: These are usually inside a red glass jar. They symbolize Jesus’ love and our adoration for him.
Now, many of the candles we use in the Catholic Church are made of beeswax. This is an important aspect since there’s also a bigger meaning behind it. Traditionally, beeswax signifies Christ’ pure flesh, which he received from his Virgin Mother. The wick also symbolizes his soul, and the flame signifies his divinity.