Question 205:

In churches frequently candles are used. Do candles have a particular meaning for Christians?



The wide-spread use of wax candles in Christian liturgy from the early centuries of Christianity onward is largely due to the symbolism inherent in the burning candle. In his booklet on the meaning of sacred symbols and signs: “Von heiligen Zeichen” (rpt. in the year 2004 as Topos Taschenbuch) the theologian Romano Guardini writes: The deepest meaning of life is to be consumed by Truth and the love for God, as the candle is consumed by light and glow. In the seventh century AD Isidore of Seville wrote: The candles at Mass are lit as a sign of joy, so that beneath the sign of the visible light that light becomes apparent, of which the first chapter of the gospel of St John says: in him [i.e. Jesus Christ, the Word of God] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it [...] The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (Jn 1: 4,5,9)

In Christian churches candles have always had a special place. At each Service the slim altar candles are lit. We also come across them time and time again during the liturgical year (the Church year): the four candles on the Advent wreath, the Easter candle and the candle for the first Holy Communion are only a few examples. Burning candles in front of pictures of Mary or the Saints are a sign of prayer and adoration. And many know the deeply rooted custom of lighting memorial candles in memory of the dead.

Already in the pagan cults in the ancient world tamed fire was lit in honour of the gods, which led to arguments among the first Christians: Because of the pagan symbolism some only wanted to use candles for lighting purposes during their Services. The others saw the light as a symbol for worshipping the Lord. After all, Christ had referred to himself as being the Light of the world.

These days the symbolic character of candles reaches well beyond Christianity. Don’t all people see the burning candle as a symbol for peace, hope and warning? In the dark times in our world we put candles in the windows as a sign of fraternity. We carry them into the streets and use them to commemorate the victims of violence. (With minor changes taken from the website:

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