Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany—6 February A.D. 2011

“I am the light of the world: he that followeth me,
walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”{1}

Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English
Saint Blaise Blessing of Throats

   I celebrated Mass on Candlemas day at Harbour's Edge Health Center. a medical care facility for seniors, where oxygen is often in use, and open flames are very much discouraged, so it seemed appropriate to bless our candles for the coming year before the principal Mass at 10:00 AM. So, it also seems appropriate to say a few words about the Church's use of candles as part of our worship of God.

   It was God Himself who commanded the use of flame in His honor. As He guided the Jewish people across the desert on their flight from Egypt, He had them build a sort of portable Temple where He would be worshiped: “Thou shalt make ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and violet and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, diversified with embroidery. The length of one curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, the breadth shall be four cubits.{2}  These curtains would be laid over a wooden framework, overlaid with gold, and would form a Tabernacle or tent that would contain the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Shekinah, the real presence of God. Among the items of furniture in the Tabernacle was a seven branched candlestick—actually a lampstand for olive oil burning lamps. And just outside of the holies would burn an eternal flame, the Ner tamid (נר תמיד), : “Command the children of Israel that they bring thee the purest oil of the olives ... that a lamp may burn always, in the tabernacle of the testimony outside the veil that hangs before the testimony. And Aaron and his sons shall order it, that it may give light before the Lord until the morning. It shall be a perpetual observance throughout their successions among the children of Israel.{3}

   Of course, this eternal light burned in the Temple in Jerusalem after the Exodus. It was extinguished when Jerusalem was conquered by the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander the Great, but relighted when the invaders were thrown out by the Machabees, and the Temple rededicated in the second century before Christ. The miracle of Chanukah—that the lamp would burn for eight days on just one day's supply of oil is still observed by Orthodox Jews to this day.

   The early Christians had no Temple, and few fixed places of worship, due to persecution by the Jews and the Romans. But under Roman law, the underground cemeteries, or catacombs, were considered sacred places where no one was to be molested, not even the Christians. So, until the early fourth century, Catholics would gather in the catacombs to offer Mass on the tombs of the martyrs. Candles were brought, first of all to furnish light in these caves, and were left burning even after the living Catholics departed, as a sign of solidarity with the martyred saints.

   When Christianity became legal in the Empire, candles continued to be used, first of all for light in the early churches which lacked large windows, and as a symbolic link with the persecuted Church and the martyrs. Over the centuries, the number of candles on the altar began to take on significance, with more candles burned at the Mass of a bishop, and more candles burned for the more solemn forms of Mass. And, as the Blessed Sacrament came to be reserved in the churches it became common to have a lamp indicating Its presence. Customarily such lamps have red globes and burn olive oil, but many churches today use a seven day candle or electric light. You don't see it very often but there may be any odd number of such lamps: one, three, five, seven, and so on.

   An additional candle may be lit near the altar from the Sanctus to the Communion to indicate that the canon of the Mass is in progress. Additional candles are employed when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for veneration. At solemn functions the acolytes carry candles when not otherwise occupied. Ordained acolytes receive an unlighted candle (and an empty cruet) in the ceremony of their ordination.

   The practice of leaving the candles to burn on the tombs of the martyrs after Mass is concluded is emulated today with “vigil” or “votive” candles, such as we have before our statue of Our Lady of Fatima. The modern practice admits of burning them before any image of our Lord, Lady, and the saints—not just in church, but in our homes as well. The burning candle is a sort of sacrificial gift, left to consume itself, and to serve as a reminder of the donor's prayerful intentions. Do be careful with candles, for they can be dangerous if improperly handled. We have some safety suggestions in this month's Bulletin, and on the Internet.{4}

   As with many practical things in the Catholic Church, pious commentators often find mystical symbolism in the use of candles. Saint Augustine and others comment that: “The wax made by virgin bees is said to represent the flesh of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.” The worker bees that make the wax are all females without biological mates, reminding us that everything material in our Lord's body was received from His Blessed Mother alone. “The combination of the wick and the wax is seen as a symbol of the hypostatic union of our Lord's humanity and divinity.” Jesus Christ is, at the same time, true God and true Man, uniquely joined through the will of the Father. “The flame is suggestive of our Lord's divinity, and reminds us of His presence among the Israelites in a pillar of flame.” And, of course, in the eternal light of the Temple.

   The candles that we bless today should remind us that the Church is sometimes persecuted, and that even during persecution we must continue to practice the Catholic Faith as completely as possible, even if in hiding (“under-ground,” as it were).

   The candles that we bless today should remind us of the glory of the martyrs, and all the saints, and particularly of our Lord and Lady, who figure so prominently in saint Augustine's symbolism.

   The candles that we bless today should remind us of God's eternal presence. God is present everywhere. He is present “where two or more are gathered in His name.” And most specially, He is present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, where we have an obligation to adore and glorify Him.

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me,
walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” 


3  Exodus xxvii: 20, 21





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