Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Altar Candles

The use of candles in the church is almost never necessitated by utilitarian or pragmatic concerns, not in the age of electricity, and not considering that most of our liturgical worship takes place in broad daylight.  It seems that when it comes to the use of candles, we have a beautiful example of how traditional thinking remains the implicit reason for the practice, even among many of the most nontraditional churches.  These candles are symbols for the adornment and enrichment of our worship. 

It is good, however, to remind ourselves periodically of just what that symbolism entails.  In this way, our traditionalism will not be merely innate, but also quite thoughtful and intentional.  The liturgical candle in general represents the light of Christ in the world.  That light illumines our hearts and minds, it strengthens faith, and it lights our way.  This it does by means of Christ's holy Word, and by the ministry of His sacraments.  And as we are thus enlightened by Baptism and the Word, and by the ongoing ministry of the eucharist, these candles also represent the Christian life, as being the light of Christ in the life of the believer.  They remind us of Christ's own claim that we are the light of the world. Of course this is true of us only as we remain in Christ, Who also said that He is the light of the world.

If this is what church candles in general remind us of, then we must first learn to see that Christ as the divine light which has come into the world is first of all chiefly symbolized by the great Paschal candle, lit and blessed anew each year at the Paschal Vigil.  In a sense, all other lights in the church get their light from this light.  In fact, this is literally the case during the Paschal season.

Other candles take on, besides the above, more particular symbolism, depending upon their special usage.  For example, the sanctuary lamp symbolizes the real presence of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the church, and serves also to be the symbolic vigil which the church always keeps in prayer and spirit before such wonderful and awesome presence.

Another example is that the altar is adorned by two candles, which fittingly accompany the celebration of the holy Eucharist, in which our Lord Jesus Christ makes Himself present for us according to both of His two natures, the human and the divine. 

But let us delve more deeply into the matter, for it is not merely the light that comes from the candle that gives us such symbolism.  There is more in the candle which merits our meditation.  The light of the flame reminds us of our Lord's divinity itself.  The cotton wick symbolizes the soul of Christ.  And the purity of the beeswax, provided by the bees which they extract from flowers, symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ, which He took from His pure and virgin Mother. 

When we remind ourselves of all this symbolism, we begin to recognize that to pick up on this, to make the symbolism effective, we need two things to take place.  One is the use of real wax candles, made from the wax of bees.  The more the beeswax content the better, even 100% when feasible.  But at least the majority of the wax ought to be from bees.  The second implication is that these real candles should be seen, and not covered with fake plastic candles.

Today, rather than letting real candles, made of real beeswax, provide beautiful spiritual symbolism for us, in many of our churches we have mere symbols of these symbols.  The best, most honest, and most effective way to have symbolism in Christ's Church is to let the symbol itself be real, and true to the symbolism, rather than using something with only the appearance, and the illusion, of the symbol. 

Therefore oil candles are inappropriate for liturgical usage.  Also we must conclude that all forms of fake candles, such as tubes made to look like candles, are less than ideal.  Surely one day we will look back on them, in fact, as an odd fashion, the phony nature of which is unbecoming in the Church.

None of this is to impugn the motives, or the sometimes complicated decision-making process that churches often go through.  It is to suggest, however, that these matters are worth examining afresh, especially in light of the fact that there, in the sanctuary, Our Lord is present in His Holy Supper, and our best and most genuine is what best befits His worship.

At our humble parish in Milwaukee, we are now in the process of transitioning from oil candles to 100% beeswax candles.  At the tenebrae a few weeks back we used unbleached beeswax candles, and my wife, out of the blue, later commented that she could smell the difference.  Sometimes it takes the sensitivity of the fairer sex to point out such things.  We are beginning the permanent transition with the two large candles on the altar.  After that, we will switch the six candles on the reredos.  Then, after the supply of oil is used up, we will switch the fourteen candles of the two candelabra.  Then, next Easter, if all goes according to plan, we will also acquire a real beeswax Paschal Candle. 

The difference in cost is worth it.  In the case of our parish, it will not be a congregational budgetary matter anyway, since a family of the parish has agreed to take on the cost.

We thank God for this development, and trust that it will enrich our worship.  And I encourage others to consider making such changes as well.


Phil said...

I don't disagree with your conclusion at all, but other than your own local tradition and usage, how do you arrive at two altar candles instead of six?

I remember reading (might have been Lang or Reed) that a good principle for liturgical furnishings is that they be genuine, even as Christ is the Truth. So real candles are to be preferred to things that appear to be candles, precious metal items should be solid and not plated, and flowers and fabrics should be natural instead of artificial.

I haven't seen it in American churches, thankfully, but apparently some of our brethren in Latvia use electric candelabras...

Terry said...

Interesting article. Our church uses candles at the entrance way for people to light if they wish. How do you understand the symbolism in that case?

Many people ask if that isn't an RC tradition.

Boris said...

Actually, electric candelabras were very much in fashion in American Lutheran churches back in the 1920s and 1930s. Electricity was relatively "new" for most churches, and people loved to find ways to show it off. Lutherans at the time really liked the electric candelabras because they didn't seem as "catholic!" as lighting real candles. Thankfully, that era has passed.


Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...


At St. Stephen's the altar itself has two large candles, and the reredos has six other candles, three on each side. Therefore, we really have eight altar candles. We light two for low mass, and all eight for sung mass. Besides these, we have the two candelabra of seven each. These are lit also for sung masses, and for solemn celebrations of the Divine Office.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Altar candles have always been seen as representative of the Light of Christ, just as is chanted three times as the Paschal Candle is being processed into the church.

Your observation that "There is more in the candle which merits our meditation. The light of the flame reminds us of our Lord's divinity itself. The cotton wick symbolizes the soul of Christ. And the purity of the beeswax, provided by the bees which they extract from flowers, symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ, which He took from His pure and virgin Mother." is something that I am not familiar with.

There is something to be said for seeing candles grow shorter as they burn. They are being consumed in their service to the liturgy, even as we should be consumed in service to our God.

I share your view of "fake" candles (candle tubes); but I disagree with your observation: "Therefore oil candles are inappropriate for liturgical usage."

Although there might be some ancient reference to candles in Egypt, oil has been the fuel of choice (or of necessity) since biblical times. The Holy Maccabees, at the rededication of the temple had only enough oil for one day; but the lamps burned for eight days. The Wise Virgins brought extra oil for their lamps. Oil is used for anointing. How, then, is oil inappropriate for liturgical use?

Like candles, which should be 51% - 100% beeswax, oil should be natural (olive) oil, not petroleum based. Other than that, I would say that historic precedent shows oil to quite acceptable and appropriate. I know of several parishes that use oil candles in part or completely.

I do prefer candles; but oil candles are an appropriate alternative.

Father Robert Lyons said...

Deacon Latif - I would also add to the discussion that the Eastern Church has a long history of preferring oil lamps to beeswax candles for use on the Altar.

Phil - Two candles on the Mensa is representative of the dual nature of Christ, a symbolism that goes back to at least the 8th century, if not earlier. It was common, particularlly in England, to have two great candlesticks upon the altar or the pavement next to the altar, with the top of the Riddel Posts also holding a candle each (4 posts).

The use of more than two candles has a varied history. The East tends to use a seven-branched candelabra in the center of the Altar (with or without, depending on the rite, a pair of other lamps).

Anglicanism has taken on the habit of two Eucharistic Lights on the Mensa or pavement, with six Office Lights on the reredos. The six candles are lit for the offices, but the two candles that are on or flanking the altar are only lit at the Eucharist.

While all kinds of fancy explanation can be developed, the final estimation comes down to utility as the origin of most customs, utility which has found a significance for generations of the faithful.


PS - Just as an aside, Latif, I am seriously considering returning to the one year lectionary with very few adaptations... mainly adding extra days!

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thank you very much, Deacon Muehlenbruch and Fr. Rob, for your comments.

I know that oil has a history in the Church, and perhaps I shouldn't have made my words come across as though I utterly condemn it. The reason I oppose oil for our use is that, unless I am mistaken, it simply is not part of Western use. Not even mentioned, for example, by any of the notable rubrical writers, as far as I recall at the moment anyway.

Father Robert Lyons said...

Deacon Latif,

Not sure... I know that the use of oil after the 12th century in the west begins to die out... but particularlly in Northern Europe, there was the custom of having a lamp known as a Corona hang above the altar. It was a seven-bowled lamp, symbolizing the Holy Spirit (similar to the seven branched candlestick in the Byzantine usage). The Corona was an oil lamp, and engravings of it from as late as the eleventh century survive. It was commonly used with the Gallacian rite (which itself showed significant Eastern influence) as I recall, and in parts of England.

I have a book at home on the history of vestments that illustrates one from the 9th century, hanging over an altar. There is also a similar engraving in an illuminated Book of Common Prayer I own.

Also, interestingly (and I am not sure about older stuff), but Roman canon law permits beeswax or a pure vegetable oil for the Sanctuary lamp. Beeswax is preferred. Parrafin is forbidden, but that doesn't stop many parishes from using them!

In a parish that shall remain nameless in Indy, there is a parish that has a magnificent Tabernacle. A person could fit inside the thing (I'm not kidding!)... the presence light is a plastic 7-day parrafin candle sitting on the floor under the table that holds the tabernacle.


Tim said...

What is a Mensa?

Father Robert Lyons said...


In liturgical parlance, the Mensa is the upper surface of the Altar.


Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Fr. Rob, Good Deacon, etc:

To be clear, I appreciate the place that oil has in the Church'sa history, and in certain places today, and for certain special uses (like the sanctuary lamp, which Lutherans in this country only think they understand). However, it is fairly undeniable (correct me if I have missed something though)that for use on the altar, oil is simply not part of the continuing tradition of the Western Church.

Secondly, it is well worth pointing out that even if I could grant its full legitimacy in Western Lutheran use, there are still two problems I see with most churches that use oil. One is that they tend not to use pure oil of olives, but rather, liquid parafin, or some such thing. And the other is that again, they tend to inject the oil into those plastic tubes made to resemble wax candles. If one insists on using oil, he should have the courage to make it obvious to all observers that it is oil up there on the altar, and not the fake tubes.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Good Deacon, the fact that you find no mention of the use of oil "by any of the notable rubrical writers," could possibly be attributed to the fact that these same writers often refer to the use of lights in place of candles or other forms of illumination.

As for your observation that "they tend to inject the oil into those plastic tubes made to resemble wax candles"; how many of those rubrical writers actually specify form and material of these lights?

It is desirable that the best and purest of things be used on the altar. But I do think that the particular form of an oil lamp light has anything to do with the case.