Why Do Catholics Light Candles?

Why do Catholics light candles?

When a Protestant starts looking into Catholicism, they tend to notice the large number of candles used during mass. They then begin to wonder why Catholics use them.

Here’s the reason why:

Catholics light candles to signify their prayer intentions. Candles are useful for creating a visual element to accompany the devotee’s prayer. The prayer can be for either God or a saint. The lighting of candles before prayer is encouraged but not necessary.

So that’s the short answer to the question. The long answer is filled with theology surrounding the candles. Read on to learn the ins and outs of it.

Christ The Light & Votive Candles

During the Easter vigils of the catholic Church, the church is kept dark and lit only by candles. The priest enters at the beginning of the service and chants, “Christ, our Light.” In this sense, the candles are used as a visual reminder of Christ’s presence.

The candles continue to remain lit for many hours or days in order to show Christ’s lingering presence. When these candles are lit by the attendees, they signify the owner’s desire to remain present with Christ even while they go about their daily lives. Visitors who come to the church afterward are reminded by the candle that others desire to be present alongside them.

Candlemas for Dummies

Candlemas is one of the lesser-known Christian holy days, and Christians who acknowledge it bring candles to their church to be blessed. The candles are reserved for special occasions and represent belief that Christ is the Light of the World.

Candlemas is used to commemorate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple when he was a child. The account is presented in Luke 2:22-40. It falls on February 2nd and is one of the oldest Christian holidays.

Alternative names for Candlemas include the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Candles: The Visual Prayer

Humans are visual creatures, i.e., they attach more value to what they see than to what they hear. So votive candles, which add a visual element to prayer, reinforce one’s faith. They have the effect of compelling the believer to trust in the prayer more strongly because the believer can now see a reminder. In this way, votive candles help orient oneself to God.

Why Do Catholics Light Candles? – The Origins of Votive Candles

Fire and light were important elements of Judaism, and Christianity both inherited and retained knowledge of their value. In Exodus 27:19-20, people were described keeping flames burning in to show their commitment to the Lord across generations. The same book also describes God’s fiery appearance before Moses on the mountain. Later, in Exodus 40:24-25, a lamp stand is set up in a meeting tent on a command God had given Moses.

So Exodus shows us that the ancient Hebrews used fire as a tool to demonstrate their constant devotion and to designate a holy space for God. Catholic churches maintain this tradition by the maintenance of their tabernacles, the place where they store their communion materials, and the candle burning within. Because God is believed to be present in the communion bread and wine, a fire is kept burning alongside Him.

Candle Placement

Early Christians understood the significance of fire, and they would light candles near the tombs of martyrs in observance of their full ascent to God.

Catholics believe they can pray to martyrs and other saints to receive their assistance, and candles are also used to show faith in them as one would have in God. This tendency to light candles for saints often results in Catholics placing candles before statues and icons.

Occasionally, Protestants will look for excuses to argue that Catholicism is false, and they point to the Catholics’ candle placement as roof of idolatry.

they lie and say that Catholics worship statues. When Catholics rebut this with the assertion that they pray to the one the statue or icon represents, the Protestant then shifts his position and says that Catholics worship the saint instead.

The proper Catholic response to this accusation is to assert that the only power the saint has is given to him/her by God. So the recognition of the saint is dependent upon a recognition of God’s supremacy.

The Protestant will not have a good answer to this, but he will not admit that his accusations were false either.

Candles are lit before Christ’s image to show reverence for him and acceptance of Him as the only one capable of granting salvation. These are the only candles which are used to depict worship of the person shown.

Why Do Catholics Light Candles? – Candles for the Dead

The act of lighting candles for the dead is one of the oldest Christian customs, and it was often done for the martyrs of the early church. Its purpose then was to show unity with those who had died for Christ. In this way, Christians have been honoring the memory fo the dead ever since the days of its founding.

Later, a few odd practices concerning candle use sprung up in various places. In Western Europe it was popular for a time to light candles of differing heights which corresponded to the height of the deceased.

A common question Catholics have about candles is their role in salvation.

The question usually takes the following form:

“Can you help your loved ones enter Heaven by burning candles for them?”

The church’s answer to this is “No”. The reasoning is as follows: A soul after death will exist in either Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. A soul in Heaven doe not need to be saved. A soul in Hell cannot be saved. And a soul in purgatory will inevitably be saved, and neither prayer nor candle can accelerate this salvation process because Purgatory exists outside of time.

Candles & Other Christians

The Eastern Orthodox also use votive candles. Orthodox candles are used slightly differently from their Catholic counterparts. First, candles to saints are placed before icons rather than statues. Next, Orthodox candles are made almost exclusively of beeswax, whereas Catholics use a variety of waxes. And the Orthodox often store candles in sandboxes. Candles for the living and for the departed also have their own designated spots.

Most Protestant denominations reject sainthood, so they do not light candles for saints. Moreover, Protestants often reduce the role of ceremonial practice in their worship and emphasize that of scripture. So the value of candles in their services is greatly reduced.

That said, a few Protestant denominations retain votive candles. These denominations include Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists.

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Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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