What is the significance of candles? There’s so many different uses.
Most certainly, the use of candles has taken on a very important place in the liturgy of the Church. When we consider that prior to the discovery and use of electricity to produce light the use of fire itself (whether generated by oil, wax, or any other means) was the practical source for giving light to churches (and any other building). Yet, even with the innovations brought about with electric lighting, candles remain an important part of the Church’s life, prayer, and tradition.
Mindful of the practical side, the symbolism found in using candles is very rich. We use varying numbers of candles to light the altar, depending on each
occasion (two, four, six, or [when a bishop offers Mass] seven). Then there are candles that are placed in devotional areas that are lighted as part of praying for the
intercession of particular saints, or for particular needs. Some church buildings have candles mounted to the walls throughout the “nave,” (that is, the area of the church itself where the people gather, or “where the pews are”) that were placed there and lit first of all on the day of the dedication of the building, as these same places on the walls were anointed with chrism during the prayers for dedicating the church building.
Yet, in considering the symbolism of candles, it is best that we look to one particular candle, from which all other candles can be considered: the Paschal Candle that is blessed and lit at the Easter Vigil and burned throughout the Easter season. For it is this Paschal Candle, which is carried into the Church in procession and is
declared three times by the deacon with the words, “The Light of Christ” from which all other candles are then lit. This “Light of Christ” signals the resurrection of Christ from the dead as the true light of the world, to which we respond, “Thanks be to God.” In addition, upon our arrival at the altar, after the third proclamation of, “The Light of Christ,” the ancient hymn “Exsultet” is then chanted by the deacon as the culmination of this procession, wherein the light of Christ symbolized in the candle is praised,
offered to God the Father, and petitioned as our true way to the eternal life and light of Heaven.
One of the beautiful realities of candle light as God himself created it is its natural capacity to be augmented without losing any of its original power. Said another way, the light of one single candle is able to light many other candles without losing any of its own brightness. Most material objects, when shared or split apart, will naturally space out their matter and lose some of their original mass. Take water, for example: if you have one cup of water, and pour part of it into another cup, the original cup no longer contains the same amount of water that it had originally contained. Meanwhile, candle light, by lighting many candles from one candle does not subtract any of the light generated by the original candle. In this way, the Paschal Candle is even more illustrative and symbolic of the light of Jesus Christ: He is able to offer His own light to an infinite number without being dimmed (not even electricity can boast this “undividedness,” as a multitude of lightbulbs all drawing upon one electrical circuit will either lead to the individual bulbs to burn less brightly than their full capacity after a given number are burning, or they will overload the circuit, causing it to blow out and no longer be capable of giving any power). Thus, the beauty of candlelight as a symbol for Christ is that it can continue to grow infinitely, enlightening many without being reduced.
While I have only touched upon one symbolic meaning of candlelight, might I conclude by saying part of the beauty of the many uses of candles, whether at Mass, at baptism, in chapels, before statues, or any other use, is that all of these varied uses have the capacity to remind us of the light of Christ, who is our life, and in whom every life and light has its source.