How should we use candles that have been blessed, whether at the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb 2, or on other occasions?
Blessed candles are sacramentals. They are not sacraments. “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1670) In other words, because they are instituted by Christ Himself, sacraments confer grace directly on us, whereas sacramentals, which are established by the Church, confer grace on us only indirectly, by helping us draw closer to Christ, especially through contemplation and prayer.
When the priest blesses candles at the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, he prays the prayer of the Church over them (cf the Roman Missal) in either of two ways:
“O God, source and origin of all light, who on this day showed to the just man Simeon the Light for revelation to the Gentiles, we humbly ask that, in answer to your people’s prayers, you may be pleased to sanctify with your blessing, these candles, which we are eager to carry in praise of your name, so that, treading the path of virtue, we may reach that light which never fails.”
Or “O God, true light, who create light eternal, spreading it far and wide, pour, we pray, into the hearts of the faithful the brilliance of perpetual light, so that all who are brightened in your holy temple by the splendour of these candles may happily reach the light of your glory.”
These two forms of blessing illustrate how we can use blessed to remind us of:
- Our search for God: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The candle reminds us that Jesus, the Word of God, is the lamp to our feet and the light to our path, showing us the Way to God (Psalm 119:105). Christ is the same Light of Truth for us today who revealed to Simeon and Anna that He was indeed the Messiah they had been waiting for all their lives.
- The darkness of sin: An object, when bathed in light, will always cast a shadow. Praying in the light of our blessed candles, we can ask the Lord for the fire of His love to burn out all impurity in us, and to illumine the areas of our lives which need healing: “He reveals deep and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him.” (Daniel 2:22) The blessing prayed over the candles also sanctifies us and our prayer space, keeping anything not of God at bay.
- The light of faith: in Jesus’ parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), the five wise virgins were unable to share the oil in the lamps with the 5 foolish ones whose oil had run out. The oil in the parable symbolises personal belief in God which springs from the heart, and thus cannot be shared, as it must come from within. The light and heat from the flames of the blessed candles remind us to always keep our faith alive, and to share our warmth and witness with others so that their own light of faith might be kindled.
- The saints who have gone before us: Jesus said, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of light – the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” (Ephesians 5:8-9) Christians in the early Church prayed by the light of candles and oil lamps in the catacombs or underground tombs of faithful disciples and martyrs to ask for their intercession and to be encouraged by remembering their lives. Today, our lighted candles help us recall that we are never alone in our prayers but always joined by the communion of saints.
- The promise of prayer: when we ask friends to pray for our intentions, some will say: “I will light a candle for you”. Usually, these “votive” candles will be lit at the foot of a crucifix on their altar, or before a statue of Our Lady or a saint in church, or at a shrine. The English word “votive” comes from the Latin word votum for “vow” and means “promising” or “keeping a vow”. Lighting a candle for someone symbolises how we desire to continue keeping that person in prayer even after we end our prayer time or leave the church, and how we believe Jesus, Our Lady or that saint continues to intercede for that person too.
Because of how candles are tangible signs in real life of the intangible mysteries of our faith, it is no wonder that in retreats and camps, during times of deep contemplation and prayer, or adoration of the Lord, candles (preferably blessed ones) are lit, not just to create an ambience or the right “mood”, but to draw souls to the Light and sanctify them. Like moths drawn to a flame, may our hearts fall irresistibly in love with God through the rich symbolism of these wonderful and wonder-filled sacramentals.
Blessed candles which can no longer by used, or other old sacramentals such as broken rosaries or damaged religious images or statues, must be disposed of properly and reverently. To find out how, be sure to pick up a copy of our Feb 21 issue of Catholic News, or why not subscribe to get your copy delivered to your postbox every fortnight? Email [email protected] now!