CANDLES have been used in Christian worship since ancient times. At first this was done – before the advent of electric lights – to provide the light necessary for readings.
However, candles have come to have symbolic value. Since biblical times, a burning flame – and light in any form – has signified the presence of God. Examples from the Bible include: the beginning, when God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3); the burning bush in which God came to Moses (Exodus 3:1-6); the pillar of fire by which God led the people of Israel by night (Numbers 14:14 and Deuteronomy 1:32-33); the coming of the Holy Spirit with “tongues of fire” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4); and Jesus as “the light of the world”. (John 9:5).
The most commonly used candle in Christian worship is the paschal (Easter) candle, a large decorative candle symbolising Christ’s appearances after the Resurrection. The paschal candle is lighted at the beginning of the Easter vigil (Easter Eve or the first service of Easter) and is carried in procession to the Lord’s Table, where it remains and is lighted at each service through the day of Pentecost. It is then placed near the church’s baptismal font where it remains throughout the year and is lighted whenever there is a baptism. It may also be used in church funerals.
In many churches candles are lighted at all services, signifying the presence of Christ, who is the light of the world. Two candles are often used, symbolising that Christ is human and divine.
In recent years, the use of four Advent candles in a ring plus a Christ candle in the centre, which is lighted on Christmas Eve, has become popular.
Candle-lighting ceremonies have also become popular in recent years, especially at Christmas Eve and Easter vigil services. Each member of the congregation lights small candles, beginning with the large Christ or paschal candle.
The Rev Hoyt Hickman, an author and church worship expert, is a retired staff member of the General Board of Discipleship, Nashville, Tennessee.