The practice of lighting candles is an important tradition in Catholic churches, communities and families. Its origins may be traced back in the Old Testament times where an oil lamp is lighted to “keep a flame burning perpetually” (Exodus 27:19-20), as “perpetual incense before the Lord from generation to generation” (Exodus 30:7-8) and as a “lamp stand in the Tent of Meeting…set up before the Lord as He has commanded Moses” (Exodus 40:24-25).
The New Testament further highlights the sanctity of this light in Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews. “A first tent was prepared with the lamp stand, the table and the bread of the presence; this is called the Holy Place” (Hebrews 9:2). In today’s Catholic tradition, this light has a very special place because it symbolizes Christ who said, “I am the Light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life” (John 8:12).
In most every part of Catholic celebrations and rituals, lighting of candles play a very significant role. Candles are lighted during the celebration of the Mass, on liturgical and funeral processions and evening prayer ceremonies. Candles are lit before the Tabernacle to signify the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament and to call for reverence on the part of the faithful.
In the Sacrament of Baptism, as a person is initiated into the Church, a candle is lit from the Paschal Candle, the symbol of Christ’s Paschal Mystery – His passion, His death and His resurrection. The person receives the Light of Christ that he may live and walk the path of God’s children and keep the flame of faith burning alive in his heart. And as he receives this indelible baptismal mark, he shall meet the Lord and be one with all the saints in Heaven when the right time comes.
Candles are lighted before an image of our Lord and before the saints. Catholics practice this not to honor the image itself but the one it truly represents. The lighted candle symbolizes a prayer offering where we present our petitions to the Lord and ask the saints to pray with us and to pray for us during our most dire need. This light, as it is kept burning, also shows our desire to remain in God’s presence as we go through our daily duties at home and in the workplace.
Candles lighted before Christ’s image also shows our reverence to Him who deserves our adoration and thanksgiving and who alone can forgive our sins and bring us back into a deeper relationship with Him.
Let us then bear in mind that as we celebrate our sacred liturgies, our sacraments and our special prayers, Christ, the Source of all Light, shall come to us to be ever present to strengthen us, instruct us, inspire us and give us hope that His Light will never burn out as long as we live in faith without a shadow of doubt that darkness will ever defeat us.