On February 2, forty days after Christmas, the Latin Rite celebrates the feast of the Purification. It is also called Candlemas because on this day Christ, the Light of the World, entered the holy temple nestled in the arms of His Immaculate Mother. Therefore, this is the day that candles are blessed and passed out at Holy Mass if the faithful have not brought their own to the ceremony. Blessed candles must be made from at least 51% beeswax.
The honey bee, traditionally, is said to symbolize Our Lady from whose virginal body issued the Light of the World. (The symbolism of the bee is drawn from the fact that the female worker bees do not mate, but they can lay infertile eggs, as can the queen bee, from which can issue male honey bees, drones [see here]). Mary gave Our Lord, from her virginal substance, His most pure Flesh and Blood. The Body of Our Lord is symbolized by the beeswax. The wick symbolizes His Soul. The flame, His Divinity. Dr. Robert Hickson pointed out to me that the bee also symbolizes Our Lady as the “pollinator” of souls in her role as Mediatrix of All Graces. In taking the pollen of God’s grace, she distributes it from flower to flower, which enables plants to produce seeds. Seeds grow into fruits and vegetables without which man (nor animal) can survive. Through Mary’s maternal mediation, we receive the “fruits” of the Holy Ghost and the “honey” of the sweet yoke of Christ.
Our Lady submitted to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:2-8) and, although in no need of ritual purification, for her holy and virginal womb was never opened, she made the poor man’s offering of two turtledoves as the law required for mothers giving birth to their first-born. This feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple was kept from antiquity dating back to the first half of the fourth century — at least in Jerusalem. In the East, it was celebrated as a feast of Our Lord, in the West, after the seventh century, as a feast of Our Lady, that is, the feast of the Purification. The prophet Simeon, who received the Baby Jesus in the temple, referred to the Holy Child as “a light of revelation to the gentiles and a glory to His people Israel.” This “just man” had been waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him that he would see with his eyes “the consolation of Israel” before departing this life.
The purpose of candles, of course, is to give light where there is darkness. It is hard for our electrified world to imagine a time when candles were necessary for illumination. The trees provide lumber for fireplaces, which provide a localized light and heat, but God even more wonderfully gave man the bee so that man could carry light all around the house. Yes, I know, God also gave us oil for feeding the fire of torch-lamps, but for simple every day purposes the candle is more convenient. Fire, by the way, is part of God’s awesome creation. It fulfills more roles than we can count. Needing no fuel in the afterlife, it serves God’s justice in hell, His purifications of souls (justice and mercy) in purgatory, and even His glory in heaven. Perhaps no material element is more mysterious than fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). That is a subject for another time. By the way, fire is not “the devil’s only friend;” Satan hates fire.
My article deals with candles and light, so let me keep to that lest I digress and start writing about electricity.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus said, “he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Divine Faith is a supernatural light to the soul. Supernatural! Father Feeney used to say that “God became man to show us what God looks like.” Father also said that divine faith enables the mind “to think the thoughts of God.” The liturgical candle, lit, is a symbol of holy faith. Until the coming of Christ, the world was in spiritual darkness. “The light shineth in the darkness,” Saint John writes in his Gospel, “and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
As faithful Catholics we, to a greater or lesser degree, are walking in this holy Light. To a greater or lesser degree, we “comprehend” it. Without the revelation of Christ, our soul would be in darkness concerning supernatural truth. With the gift of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, we can walk in the Light of God and see where we are going, step by step, living in hope and charity in our quest for union with God through His Son and in the Holy Ghost. This is not to say that those who have not yet been supernaturally illuminated have no light in their soul. They have the natural, God-given light of reason and the light of the natural law, by which all men are made in God’s image. If they cooperate with this light, God will give them the revelation of those truths necessary to be believed in in order to receive the supernatural light of justification by His grace, which elevates the soul to share in God’s “likeness.” Adam and Eve (and the angels, too) were created in grace, in God’s “image and likeness.”
Supernaturally speaking, however, without the light of Faith, the soul is in utter darkness. It is as if a man woke up during a blackout and, opening his eyes, shades drawn, he is unable to see a thing. We all have experienced this. Trying to feel one’s way to find something familiar for security may help until sunrise, but until then one is totally helpless. I remember falling down two flights of stairs once when I closed the door to my apartment and found the hall light bulb was out. What I thought would be the door handle was empty space and down I went.
I was speaking about candles.
Did you know that in liturgical law a priest is forbidden, under normal conditions, to say Mass if there are not two candles burning? Of course, this unessential obligation is not a divine law but the positive law of the Church. Both servers and candles can be dispensed with if there is an emergency situation. For example, we read many stories of priests in concentration camps, or in solitary confinement, to whom were smuggled bread and wine for a clandestine Mass. In such cases, canon law allows that it is better that a priest offer Mass with no one present than not to offer Mass at all. The Holy Mass is the greatest act of the Church (God, through His alter Christus, offering God to God, Father Feeney used to say) and, although it is intended to be a “public act” of worship, it does not lose its publicity (as in visibility) as a public Sacrifice and a consummating Communion when the priest offers it and communicates all alone. For a High Mass, however, there must be six lit candles on the altar. And for Benediction, at least twelve. For a Mass offered by a bishop, seven candles are required, as a norm. This last requirement is an ancient liturgical custom in the West that some liturgists think symbolizes the universal Church, which can also be seen as figured in the seven Churches of the Apocalypse. Too, lest I leave out an important and often neglected custom, a third candle should be lit after the Sanctus during a low Mass and placed near the tabernacle. It is extinguished after Communion.
Candles play a beautiful, symbolic role in the Church’s liturgy. The Tenebrae service of Good Friday morning (pre-dawn) with its gradual extinction of the candles (except for one, symbolizing undying hope, which is hidden behind the altar) during the singing of the three Nocturns of Matins and the gradual lighting of the church leading up to the singing of the Exultet on the Holy Saturday night Easter Vigil are meant to move our soul from the dirgeful mourning of the Holy Week Matins’ chanting of the 22 Lamentations of Jeremias and the Stabat Mater Dolorosa of the Stations of the Cross to the exultation of the Resurrection with the Gloria at the Mass of the Easter Vigil. Gradually, as just noted, the candles are extinguished, one by one, on Good Friday, until all is in darkness for the whole of Holy Saturday. In this way the liturgy represents for us the darkness that covered the earth during the three hours of the crucifixion and death of Our Lord on Calvary. Then, with the Easter Vigil Mass, the liturgy begins in darkness in the church’s vestibule. One by one the tapers of the faithful are lit from the Paschal Candle which has been ignited in the vestibule by the Easter fire, As this is done, the deacon (or priest) sings thrice “Lumen Christi!” before the Paschal candle as the procession of ministers and servers moves toward the altar. The procession with the Paschal Candle culminates with the deacon’s singing of the Easter Proclamation, the glorious Exultet of which the second stanza proclaims:
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
The Paschal Candle must be made of pure 100% beeswax. It is lit at every Mass from Easter until Ascension Thursday when it extinguished after the reading of the Gospel.
Such material instruments as candles and incense, employed by the Church in her rituals, were originally mandated for divine worship in the temple of Jerusalem. They were mandated by God through the law given by Moses. There was the seven-branch candelabrum in the Holy Place next to the altar of incense. The fact that pagans used such elements in their idolatrous rituals only goes to prove that the devil is “the ape of God.”
The candle signifies not only the light of God’s revelation to His people but also the Holy Trinity: the Unbegotten Father is the flame, the Begotten Son is the light from the flame, and the Holy Ghost is the heat. Or, even more representative of the Inner Life of the Trinity, the flame is the Holy Ghost who proceeds from the candle and wick, the Father and the Son, as One Principle. Indeed the Holy Ghost appeared as “tongues of fire” upon the heads of the fearful disciples, strengthening them with fortitude at Pentecost. Candles and incense signify prayer. As prayer ascends up to God, so does the flame and smoke of the candle ascend and the “sweet savor” of burning incense: “And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with the fire of the altar, and cast it on the earth, and there were thunders and voices and lightnings, and a great earthquake” (Apoc. 8:3-5).
“No man lighteth a candle, and putteth it in a hidden place, nor under a bushel,” Our Lord said,; “but upon a candlestick, that they that come in, may see the light” (Luke 11:33). It is significant indeed that this simile of Our Lord is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels.
We are called, then, to illumine our neighbor and all with whom we come in contact by word and example. In His Light “who dwelleth in light inaccessible” (1 Timothy 6:16) we have light and thus our own souls first should be lightsome and then we will be able to enlighten others. “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
We are also warned by Jesus to keep our eyes pure. “But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matthew 6:23).
Finally, let us heed the words of Saint Paul: “For all you are the children of light, and children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness” (1 Thess, 5:5).
If we are the children of Light we are indeed children of God. “Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God” (1 John 1:3).