Altar candles have been a part of the Roman Catholic Church for most of its history, and play a vital part in the church today, from the paschal candle to the sanctuary lamp. Writings appear as early as the fourth century discussing the symbolism and meaning of candles, and rules governing their use, composition and placement are set forth in canon law and liturgical guides. Controversy exists about use of electric or "imitation" candles, and is addressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
According to the Rev. John Bolen in his essay "The Wax Candle in the Liturgy," there is agreement that candles were not used as a part of ceremony until the fourth century. It was then that the offering of candle in honor of Jesus Christ as the light of the world originated, and reached ultimate expression in the paschal candle. Around the same time, St. Jerome developed the symbolism of bees and their wax. Beeswax represents the body of Christ, the wick his soul and the flame itself his divinity. The use of candles became an act of reverence, and rules for that use were made.
The Paschal Candle
The paschal candle is a representation of Christ as the light of the world. The candle is made of pure beeswax, and is adorned in a way found on no other candle. Five grains of incense form a cross on it, representing the wounds to Christ's body and spices used in preparation of his burial. The paschal candle is carried in procession on Holy Saturday while the congregation waits in darkness. Holy Saturday, or the Easter Vigil, is the last day of Lent, the time of penance and fasting leading to Easter Sunday. No Mass is held until after sundown.The candle is then lit and blessed by the priest, while he makes a cross on it and places the five pieces of incense. He also inscribes the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, for Christ being the beginning and the end. The current year is also marked, and the candle is lit every Mass during the Easter season.
The sanctuary lamp, or lamp of the presence, is another singular type of candle set forth in church policy and canon law, although it is more than just a simple candle. It is a candle that is placed in a red glass container, and burns night and day when the Blessed Sacrament is present, or reserved, in a church or chapel. Also known as the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament is the consecrated host or Communion wafer that Catholic tradition holds to be the real presence of Jesus Christ. Beyond serving as a sign that Blessed Sacrament is present, it acts as a symbol of Christ's love and sacrifice, and calls the faithful who are present to respond to that love.
Altar Candle Use
The Instruction of the Roman Missal governs all aspects of the celebration of Mass, including the use of candles. Known also by the acronym GIRM, it is a document containing the rules, regulations and requirements of a Mass conducted in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. It calls for a minimum of two candles to be present on the altar or near it, but allows for four and six as well. A seventh can be permitted if the Mass is celebrated by a bishop. The candles must placed in a way that considers the design of the altar and sanctuary and does not interfere with the viewing of the altar.
Beginning in the 1990s, some churches have sought to use imitation candles as a cost saving measure. These include candles with electric bulbs, as well as wax candles with replaceable oil inserts. Even the votive offering candles that have long been part of the image of a Catholic church have in some cases been replaced with electric versions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded to this on its website, saying it is not permitted to use these in the liturgy. It also makes clear that votive candles should not be replaced with the electric version, although these candles fall outside the scope of what is expressly covered in the rules for the liturgy.
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