So many candles…
With the presence of nearly universal electrical wiring in American homes, candles have become far less essential that in the days of long ago. However candle makers still abound. Their products scent the air, help to create a sense of intimacy and elegance at romantic dinner, adorn a birthday cake, help to dispel the darkness during a power outage, and possibly help us to experience the nostalgia of times long past.
How different are the candles we find in church! Each candle has a purpose and meaning. As we examine the significance of the candles, we must first put aside our magnetic north compass and realize that our bearings inside the church are guided by symbols of our faith. The altar is the focal point of our Liturgy of the Eucharist as we recall Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. The altar represents the east – where the sun rises and where the Son has Risen.
There are two candles on the altar. The one on the right is the Epistle Candle. The entire right side if the church, both in the sanctuary (the area within the area defined by the altar rail) and in the nave, is referred to as the Epistle Side. This symbolizes the region which first heard the words of Jesus. Thus, the Epistle Candle is always lit first.
The candle on the left side of the altar is known as the Gospel Candle; likewise the left side of the church is known as the Gospel Side. The Gospel Candle is always lit second to symbolize the spread of Jesus’ message to regions north of the Holy Land.
The torches, candles carried in the entrance procession, gospel procession, and in the retiring or exiting procession, are shielded in glass chimneys to keep the flame from being blown out. (Note the use of the word “procession” in all instances. We go forth to enter into worship; we go forth to proclaim the gospel; we go forth to minister to the world.) We can see how the word “recessional” would be inappropriate as we ponder its linguistic relatives recede, recession, recess, all of which connote backing down, going away, lessening in value, being “off duty.”
The candle in the red lantern chimney that hangs high in the gospel side of the sanctuary often gives rise to questions. The significance of such a candle varies from church to church. In some locations it is a memorial candle such as might be found near a Book of Remembrance. Lutheran and Methodist churches often refer to it as a Presence Light, placed to symbolize the presence of God in a sacred space. In the Episcopal Church when it is placed as we have it by the Aumbry, a repository for the Blessed Sacrament or Consecrated Host, it signifies that the Body of Christ is present in a unique and holy way. We recall the words said as we receive Holy Communion, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Any consecrated hosts that are not consumed during the communion are stored in the Aumbry during the time when the eucharistic vessels (paten and chalice) are cleansed. You may recall that, during the Stripping of the Altar at the close of the Liturgy on Maundy Thursday, the candle is extinguished and the door to the Aumbry is left open. For the faithful this is a heart-wrenching moment not unlike the desolation that the Disciples felt when they experienced the death of their beloved leader, Our Lord.
The Paschal Candle serves many functions. It is first used in the Great Vigil of Easter where the New Fire which is blessed with these words: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The Paschal Candle is lit from the New Fire and is then carried into the nave with great dignity and solemnity. The bearer of the candle, customarily a deacon, pauses three times, elevates the candle and sings The Light of Christ. All respond, Thanks be to God. This candle burns at all Liturgies through the Easter Season. Following the Season of Easter, the Paschal Candle is most often placed by the Baptismal Font where is stays for the remainder of the year, being moved only for funerals when it is placed by the casket or urn during the Burial Service.
A practice which has been borrowed from the Lutheran tradition is the lighting of candles in an Advent Wreath. The four candles and the pattern in which they are lit, adding one for each Sunday, help us to mark our progression through the Advent season of preparation. Evidence that the practice is not from the Anglican tradition is underscored by the fact that there is no documentation in the Book of Common Prayer. The practice, however, is a useful instructional tool. The violet candles remind us that Advent is a season of penitence and preparation for a great festival. The rose candle, lit on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete), reminds us to rejoice “for the Lord is at hand.”
Have I mentioned all of the candles and their meaning and instructional value? No, not yet. At the back of the church, in a corner of the Gospel Side aisle, is a rack of candles with a kneeler placed before it. These are votive candles which are lit in fulfillment of a promise to offer prayer. Oftentimes people ask us to pray for them or we promise to offer a prayer. The votive candle gives us time to pause and reflect on the prayer request and the resulting prayer. It gives us a visible, tangible reminder that the promise has been carried out. Never is this intended to be a public act, but rather an act of private devotion.
Last of all are the handheld candles used at Christmas and the Great Vigil of Easter. Their use is not universal, nor is it required by the Church. Rather the candles are a symbol of Christ’s light in the world – both at His Birth and at His Resurrection.
As you can see, the candles in church go far beyond the decorative aspect. They are present for teaching, reminding, and for supporting our devotion.