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We'll leave a light on for you.

I WAS WALKING WITH A PRIEST FRIEND THROUGH the church building of the parish he pastored. He grinned mischievously as we crossed the sanctuary, which had acquired a more spacious, airy feel after some renovations. He joked about the heat-seeking missiles that the old guard had launched when the remodeling moved the votive candles from their age-old position near the Mary and Joseph statues. I admired his humor about being at ground zero until a cynical, mean-spirited tone crept in.

"I can't figure out why the candles are so important to all those old ladies, anyway. What do they think--that the candles are going to do their praying for them?" he asked, his acerbity leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

Besides the unpleasant surprise of his hostility, I was indignant because votive (or vigil) candles are important to me--and I am neither elderly nor female. No, I didn't care where the candles were in the church, but I certainly cared that they were in the church. He seemed to view the candlelighting as a superstitious and individualistic piety from older times. Exactly the opposite is true of my use of those candles for intercession. It is for me a flesh-and-blood (or should I say, wax-and-wick) expression of the time-honored imagery of the communion of saints.

I also think of the practice in the context of the contemporary reemphasis on the church as the People of God and as community. I'd like to think the same is true for "those old ladies," whether or not they are explicitly conscious of the symbolism. Christians have used candles for worship and ritual in gatherings and in places of prayer from a very early period, not just for practical purposes but because they are "part of the natural language of mystical expression," says the Catholic Encyclopedia. The obvious symbol is of Christ as Light of the World, which "shines in the darkness" and which is "the true light that enlightens" (John 1:5,9) us all.

To flesh out candles' metaphorical content, we look at a tradition, which may be traced back to the patristic period that saw the wick as representing Jesus' soul and the wax, his body. The flame symbolized his divinity, unifying and consuming the wax and wick. On another level, the paschal candle most richly and fully represented Christ, and all other devotional or liturgical candles typified Christians as imitators of Christ and bearers of his light in the world. This understanding sparked a medieval practice of using votive candles in churches and at shrines that equaled the height of the intercessor.

Is this two-level imagery--of candles as icons of Christ and as symbols of Christians, who strive to be icons of Christ--the wellspring of the intuitive, metaphorical spirit behind lighting candles for prayer intentions at shrines, in front of statues or pictures of saints, and in churches and grottos?

The candle's long-lasting light is a palpable sign that Jesus is eternally in God's presence where he "lives forever to make intercession" (Heb. 7:25) for us. Looking at the candles as symbols of ourselves, it may not be superstition but rather the instinctive "language of mystical expression," which says that lighting candles is like leaving one's prayer and presence in a holy place.

When someone seeks the intercession of a particular canonized saint or deceased loved one, the candle is a sign of the constant, perfect prayer that we believe that person can offer.

Theologians and pastoral leaders who always suspect a kind of primitive superstition may be wise to "recognize the [cultic] wisdom of the people," says Jaime Vidal, director of Hispanic ministry at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. "Just because people can't explain things with sophistication, that doesn't mean they're idiots who think the symbol replaces the reality," he observes.

Admittedly people may not make a mental or verbal prayer when they light candles. With a renewed understanding of spirituality as engaging the whole person, however, we can see the act "as praying with the body, a gesture acting out our offering to God," Vidal suggests.

When I light one candle among the many in a rack or alcove, I assume that other people who light candles there or who simply pass by and pray will in some fashion include my concern in their intercessions. Wanting to keep up my end of the bargain, I commend to God the petitions that all the candles signify.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Claretian Publications
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Title Annotation:votive candles
Author:Wood, Charles
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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