The use of lights in religious worship is no new thing. We read in the 25th and 27th chapters of the Book of Exodus that God commanded Moses to make the seven-branched candlestick, in the lamps of which pure olive oil was to be constantly burned. It was the duty of the priests to enter daily into that part of the Tabernacle called the Holy where this candlestick was, and trim the lights, that they might ever burn bright and beautiful before the Lord.
The voice of Catholic tradition attests the use of lights in the Christian Church from the Apostolic days. St. John describes, in the 1st chapter of the Apocalypse, the vision in which he saw the seven golden candlesticks. Now, the Liturgy of the Church Militant is a counterpart of that of the Church Triumphant, for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is Jesus who is in heaven; hence commentators have gathered that in the time of St. John lights were used in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Incidental testimony of the early Fathers, which is all the stronger for being incidental, and the authority of the ancient and venerable Apostolic canons establish the same truth.
The heretic Vigilantius attacked, in the fourth century, the use of lights in the divine offices, but he was victoriously confuted by St. Jerome. The Saint informs us that “throughout the Churches of the East, whenever the Gospel is to be recited, they bring forth lights, not certainly to drive away darkness, but to manifest some sign of joy, that under the type of corporal light may be indicated that light of which we read in the Psalms: Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths.” What St. Jerome tells us of the practice of the Eastern Church, St. Paulinus, the amiable poet bishop of Nola, tells us of the Western. We transcribe a translation of his beautiful Latin lines from Dr. Rock’s Hierurgia:
With crowded lamps are those bright altars crowned,|
And waxen tapers, shedding perfume round,
From fragrant wicks, beam calm a scented ray
To gladden night and joy e’en radiant day.
Meridian splendors thus light up the night,
And day itself, illumed with Sacred Light,
Wears a new glory, borrowed from those rays
That stream from countless lamps in never-ending blaze.
We shall no longer delay on the dogmatic proofs of the antiquity of lights in the Church, but hasten to more practical points.
When our Lady went up to Jerusalem, forty days after Christmas, to make the offering prescribed by the Mosiac law for mothers after the birth of the first-born son, and the still more precious offering of the Infant Jesus to His Eternal Father, the holy old man Simeon “came by the Spirit into the temple.” He took the sweet Child into his arms and blessed God and said: “Now dost thou dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy words, in peace, because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a Light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The Church calls us into the temple, on the Purification, that our eyes too may see this glorious Light, recognizing it in its symbol, the blessed Candle, that our hands too may hold the Infant Saviour, in holding the waxen taper which represents Him.
How full of meaning are all the rites of our holy religion! Not by chance has the Church chosen the wax candle as a type of her Lord and Master. St. Anselm, of Canterbury, tells us the reason: The wax, product of the virginal bee, represents Christ’s most spotless Body; the wick, enclosed in the wax and forming one with it, images His human Soul, whilst the ruddy flame, crowning and completing the union of wax and wick, typifies the Divine Nature, subsisting inconfusedly with the Human Nature in One Divine Person.
Let us then make, on receiving our blessed candle, an act of faith in Christ the Light of the world “enlightening every man coming into this world.” Let us remember that we are the “children of light,” and that as such we ought to shed around us the light of good example. Oh! dear readers, if our lives were as they should be, we would be like so many torches placed along the pathway of truth, to show our poor erring countrymen the way to the glorious city of God, the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church.
We should make, on this festival, an offering of candles for the service of the Altar. [They should be of wax—such is the wish of the Church.] Oh! what a consoling thought for us when we are at our daily work, to think that perhaps our candles are at that moment burning before the Blessed Sacrament, taking the place of our hearts, silently, purely burning in their stead before the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Nor should we forget ourselves; we ought to have, at least, one blessed candle for our own private use, to take to our houses, to burn before the Crucifix or an image of the Blessed Virgin, to remind us that our souls, like it, ought to be consuming the dross of earthly affection, in the pure, heaven-aspiring flame of love.
We must put confidence in these holy candles, for the prayers of the Church have ascended to God, that “He would bless and sanctify them for the service of men and for the good of their bodies and souls in all places.” Pious Catholics light them during thunder storms, that God, in consideration of Christ, whom they represent, may deign to protect His servants. Let us light them whenever we are threatened with calamity, and if we do so in a spirit of faith, we shall experience signal proofs of God’s fatherly care of us. But above all let the holy candle burn by the bedside of the sick and the dying, dispelling by its blessed light the shades of trouble and despair which the Prince of darkness strives to cast around the Christian soul in the hour of its dissolution, and illumining the dark road, through the valley of death to the mountain whose light is God.
(B see Appendix.)