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.