Indeed, you are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord lightens my darkness. [2 Samuel 22:29]
Christians brought candles into worship in order to see, to light up dark rooms. Over time, however, Christians have assigned significance to candles due to the prominent theme of God’s light found throughout scripture. Here are several traditional uses:*
In the very ancient Christian practice, baptism occurred at night at the Saturday Easter Vigil. The newly baptized received candles so they could find their way in the dark. The candle also symbolized the baptizands’ illumination by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Today we still give lit candles to the baptized or their sponsors quoting Christ:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]
Originally used to give light for the reading of the Gospel during worship, the Christ candle has come to symbolize the presence of Christ in God’s Holy Word. Today we still light the Christ candle to emphasize Christ’s presence in the scripture (next to the lectern) and in baptism (next to the baptismal font).
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12]
This is another term for the Christ Candle, emphasizing Christ’s death and resurrection. It is lit during the season of Easter, at baptisms, and funerals, to remember we are resurrected through Christ’s resurrection.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. [Luke 1:78-79]
Altar Table Lights
These originate from the need to see the elements of holy communion. At times, churches have placed seven lights on or in front of the altar table to symbolize the seven lamps burning before the throne of God from John’s vision of heaven in Revelation 4:5.
Most other uses of candles in worship stem from pre-Christian rituals that have been adopted by Christians over the centuries. These include candles for prayers and vigils, the Advent wreath, and the eternal light. In general, these represent the presence of God. There is no uniform use for these types of candles in the church.
Personal devotions: Christ, be my light. Shine in my heart, illuminate my darkness. Amen.
* MacGregor, A. J. “Candles, Lamps and Lights.” The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship. Ed. Paul Bradshaw. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. 93-95. Print.