Candles play an important and historic part of the Catholic mass, and are found in areas of the church dedicated to both reflection and gathering. While candles were once primarily used to give light for reading the Scriptures and celebrating the sacred action, Thomas Richstatter of St. Meinrad School of Theology explains that today candles are used symbolically. To understand the function of the red candle on the altar of a Catholic church, you must first understand the theology of transubstantiation, and the role of the altar and tabernacle in the Catholic mass.
At the center of the Catholic mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, or the breaking and partaking of bread and wine in community to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Catholic theology teaches that through the priest’s words of consecration, the bread and wine are supernaturally and fundamentally changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a process called ''transubstantiation.'' The bread and wine continue to look and taste the same, and remain unaltered in chemical composition, but the substance of the Eucharistic elements mysteriously changes to become the real body and blood of Jesus.
The Altar and Tabernacle
The Eucharist is celebrated on a special table, known as the altar, on which the bread and wine are placed and blessed. According to Richstatter, the table functions as both an altar of sacrifice and a banquet table for the Eucharist, which Richstatter, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, says is both "a memorial of Christ's death and resurrection" and "a paschal banquet — in which Christ is eaten, the heart is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory given to us." Rev. Paul W. Kelly of Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Parish in Australia explains on his church's website that, the bread and wine, once consecrated, remain fundamentally the holy body and blood of Christ. Any unconsumed bread or wine must either be consumed after the mass or stored in a metal box known as the tabernacle, historically on the altar.
The Sanctuary Lamp
Because of the honor given to Christ’s body and blood, a red votive candle, known as the sanctuary lamp, is traditionally lit beside the tabernacle to show that it contains the consecrated elements. The sanctuary lamp reminds Catholics that Jesus is present in the tabernacle, and churchgoers often pray before the tabernacle and reflect on the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
In addition to the sanctuary lamp, many other candles have symbolic functions. According to St. Mary’s Anglican Catholic Church of Denver, sometimes Catholics light candles as a reminder that their prayers continue to rise to God even after they leave the church building. Candles also symbolize the rising of believers’ prayers to God, and remind Catholics that Jesus is the church’s light and that they are called to be God’s light to others.
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