With the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary is closed the series of feasts that circle around the cradle of Bethlehem. On Christmas are presented the birth of the long-expected Redeemer of the world, the Desired of nations, and His manifestation to the Jews, in the persons of the poor shepherds, as the One for whom their fathers and the prophets had yearned. Epiphany completes that manifestation by presenting Him to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men, as Him in whom the Gentiles should hope. Now Mary crowns the great work by offering Him in the temple to the Eternal Father as the Victim by whose atonement a permanent reconciliation is to be effected between God and man, the gates of heaven are to be opened, and the thrones made vacant by the fall of the angels re-occupied. Did it fall within the scope of this essay much might be written on these points; but we are concerned in this place with the blessing of the candles only and the institution of the feast upon which that ceremony takes place.
Dr. Wapelhorst1 very properly draws attention to a point which it is well to bear in mind, especially in our day when the mystic is lost sight of to so great an extent, and when everything is sought to be judged, even by many Catholics of the lax and imperfectly informed class, by the criterion of the senses without any relation to the supernatural. He says: “The service of the Church in each detail is eminently what the Apostle of the Gentiles directed the Romans to offer, ‘your reasonable service,’ which, if rightly understood, renders its strict observance as agreeable as it is beneficial. . . . The two cardinal principles which determine the ecclesiastical legislation regarding liturgical lights are: first, the symbolical meaning of lights, and, second, tradition, or what might be called historical consistency.”
The use of lights in the Jewish temple is well known; and, though there is difference of opinion as to whether they burned during the day or not, it is more probable they did, as Josephus expressly states. Inasmuch as the first Christians were converts from Judaism, it would appear but natural for them to continue the use of lights in the New Dispensation; for if they were appropriate in the ceremonies of the worship which was but the shadow of the better things to come, much more appropriate are they in that form of worship which is the reality. Besides, they would aid in reconciling the converts to the change of religion.
The best authorities on the liturgy maintain that the use of lights during the celebration of the divine mysteries is of apostolic origin; an opinion which gains weight from certain passages in the New Testament, especially from St. John’s vision in the Apocalypse (i. 12, 13), as well as from the custom of the Jews just referred to. The first mention of the use of lights in the New Law is found in the Acts of the Apostles (xx. 8); but these, it would seem, were used rather from necessity, to dispel the darkness, than as an adjunct to divine worship. The use of lights is mentioned in all the Oriental liturgies. But perhaps the first direct testimony to the use of lights in that portion of the Church is furnished by St. Jerome, in the fourth century, in his reply to the heretic Vigilantius, who attacked their presence as superfluous. The celebrated Father and Doctor replied—and his rejoinder implies that the use of lights was a custom of long standing:—“Throughout the churches of the East, whenever the gospel is read, they bring forth lights; not certainly to drive away darkness, but to manifest some sign of joy, that under the type of corporeal light may be symbolized that light of which we read in the psalms (cxviii. 105): ‘Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths.’”
St. Paulinus, the scholarly Bishop of Nola, who flourished in the first half of the fifth century, bears testimony to the use of lights in the celebration of the divine mysteries in the Western Church. Dr. Rock gives us in his Hierurgia the following translation of a part of one of his numerous hymns:
“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.”
Although candles were used in all probability from apostolic times in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, Wapelhorst concludes, after carefully weighing the authorities, that “during the first ten centuries of the Church’s life no candles were placed directly upon the altar, or at least upon the table of the altar; but there were always quite a number of lights kept round about the altar. Burning lamps were suspended partly in front, partly above the altar, and betwixt the columns of the ciborium, or canopy above the altar.” Large chandeliers are also mentioned by early writers, which either in the sanctuary or immediately before it shed light from hundreds of lamps or candles. As an example it may be mentioned that Pope Adrian I. (773-795) had a chandelier made for St. Peter’s which held thirteen hundred and seventy candles.
The use of lights in the administration of the sacraments and other sacred functions may be traced to the respect, we should have for these sacred rites, and also to the symbolical meaning of wax and light already referred to. But only in baptism is direct reference made to the candle. This is done when, toward the end of the ceremony, a lighted candle is placed in the hand of the newly baptized, or his sponsors, with the solemn admonition: “Receive this burning light, and preserve your baptism blamelessly; keep the commandments of God, in order that when the Lord shall come to the marriage-feast you may run to meet Him with all the saints in His celestial palace, and may have life everlasting and live forever and ever. Amen.” Early writers mention the use of lights at funeral obsequies, especially of persons of note; and the number of lamps found in the catacombs and in other early sepulchres of the Christians confirm their statements.
“Light,” says Wapelhorst, “is the fittest and most appropriate symbol of God, an absolutely pure spirit Light is itself pure; it penetrates long distances; it moves with incredible velocity; it awakens and propagates life in the organic kingdom; it illumines with its brilliancy all that comes under its influence. Therefore the Holy Scriptures make frequent use of this symbolic meaning. . . . ‘God is light, and in Him there is no darkness.’2 The wisdom of the Son is called ‘the brightness of eternal light,’ and ‘the brightness of glory.’3 The psalmist exclaims (ciii. 2): ‘Thou art clothed with light as with a garment.’”
Light also represents the mission of our divine Lord upon earth. The prophet Isaias (ix. 2) calls Him a great light, and foretells that “to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death light is risen;” and holy Simeon declares that He is “a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” To these St. John adds that He was “the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.” And Christ says of Himself, “I am the light of the world.”4 The Sacred Scripture abounds in similar passages, but these are sufficient.
Lights are also significant of respect, and hence they are used on occasions when it is desired to show more than ordinary deference to distinguished personages or to holy things. Both the Greeks and the Romans employed them in the celebration of many of their pagan rites. Josephus informs us that, out of the great reverence which the chosen people entertained for the vestments of the high-priest, a light was kept constantly burning before them. The Grand Lama, or supreme pontiff, of Tartary is never seen in his palace without having a profusion of lamps and torches burning around him. The same custom is found in many abbeys, where at meals two candles, with the crucifix between them, burn on the table before the abbot. And it is a universal, or almost universal, rule of royal etiquette to burn two or more candles before kings and princes on important occasions, such as state dinners, etc.
It is a remarkable fact that no work on the liturgy makes mention of any other than beeswax candles in any of the sacred functions of religion, except to condemn them unqualifiedly; and the very name—cereus—most frequently made use of is the Latin word for this wax. The law requiring candles for the altar to be made of beeswax is very strict, and it is rarely indeed, as we shall see, that a dispensation is granted for the use of any other material; and it is never granted on account of poverty, no matter how great that poverty may be. The only ground recognized by the Church is the impossibility of procuring beeswax; and as soon as it can be had the dispensation ceases by that very fact. The reason the Church has selected the candle as the type of Our Lord is thus explained by St. Anselm: “The wax produced by the virginal bee represents Christ’s most spotless body; the wick enclosed in the wax and forming one with it images His soul, while the ruddy flame crowning and completing the union of wax and wick typifies the divine nature subsisting in the human in one divine Person.”
The spread of the Church in missionary countries, especially during the present century, and the great difficulty encountered in many instances in procuring the requisites for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, rendered it necessary for the perplexed missionaries and their bishops to address numerous questions to the Sacred Congregation of Rites regarding what might be permitted in the peculiar circumstances in which they were placed, so as to comply at once with the requirements of liturgical law and at the same time afford their people, as far as possible, the consolations of religion. It is doubtful whether any question perplexed them more than that of the material which it would be lawful to use for lights at the altar. But while the authorities at Rome attached due importance to the difficulties by which the missionaries were surrounded, they still adhered to the laws, the traditions, and the symbolic meanings of the liturgy, and no general relaxation was permitted, though special indults were granted in a few cases until the existing abnormal condition of affairs could be changed for the better. Again, poverty, added to these difficulties, often led to the making of candles of other material than wax, such as vegetable or artificial wax, sperm, stearine, paraffine, tallow, and sometimes of a mixture of beeswax with one or another of these baser materials. Prelates from various parts of the world appealed to the Holy See for permission to use such candles, partly on the ground of poverty, partly on that of the impossibility of procuring beeswax, and partly because in countries where the proper material could be had there were not wanting some who continued the use of other than wax candles, with the tacit permission of their bishops. The case was put in its strongest light; but of all the multitudinous petitions presented the only one granted was that of the Vicar Apostolic of Corea, who was permitted to use the wax exuding from a tree of that country, because it was impossible to procure beeswax, and because that wax resembled the proper material. The Sacred Congregation, however, it is well to remember, did not reply that it was lawful to use this wax, but that they would apply to the Holy Father for special permission to use it till such time as beeswax could be had. It is a point worthy of careful attention that the use of any other material than beeswax is never permitted except provisionally.
A remarkable instance, which shows the unchangeable mind of the Church on this point, is furnished by Dr. Wapelhorst in the following words: “The superiors of the missions of Oceanica, finding it impossible to obtain beeswax for candles, had requested the Sacred Congregation to allow the use of sperm and stearine candles. The Sacred Congregation of Rites answered that, it being impossible to obtain wax, the missionaries of that country might, by a special privilege which the Holy See granted in their behalf, make use of olive oil instead; and, if this failed, they might celebrate Mass without lights. The superiors had recourse again, stating that it was not in their power to obtain olive oil any more than wax, and that the missionaries were unwilling to celebrate without lights. Upon this the Sacred Congregation of Rites answered, September 7, 1850, that they might make use of sperm or stearine candles till it would become possible to obtain wax or oil.” Whatever the opinion of others may be, I cannot, in view of these decisions, see how anyone can use other than wax candles on the altar in this country at the present time. It is beyond all possible question entirely alien from the spirit of the Church. But it will be said that many of the so-called wax candles offered for sale are not pure wax—perhaps are not half beeswax. This question has not escaped the attention of the Sacred Congregation of Rites; for a priest consulted that body on the matter, and the answer, under date of March 8, 1879, was that he should abide by the decision of his bishop.
Before treating of the blessing of candles it will be proper for us to inquire into the origin of the feast of the Purification, upon which that ceremony takes place, and why it is fixed on that day and no other. While the purification was one of the ordinances of the Mosaic law (Exodus, xiii. 2), the date of its institution as a Christian feast, with its procession and the blessing of candles, is not so easily ascertained. Our divine Redeemer came, as He declares, not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it; and, though neither He nor His blessed Mother was subject to the law of purification, they both complied with it to leave to mankind an example of humility and obedience. With them, however, it was not merely a ceremony, in acknowledgment of the supreme dominion of God over His rational creatures, but an act full of the deepest signification. But the purpose at present is to treat of the feast only in its relation to the blessing and use of candles.
There are several reasons why the Church instituted this feast, and fixed on it the blessing of candles. In the first place, it comes forty days after the date usually assigned as that of Our Saviour’s birth, and hence corresponds to the purification required by the law of Moses. Again, it is well known that the Church, instead of trying to obliterate entirely the remembrance of a pagan feast in her converts,—and much more of a Jewish one,—sometimes changes it into a Christian solemnity, the better to win the erring to her fold, and avert the danger of a return to their pagan superstitions.
Some writers maintain that it was Pope Gelasius, who ruled the Church at the close of the fifth century, that instituted the feast of the Purification, to take the place of the Lupercalia, which is said to have been established by Evander, and which was celebrated annually on the 15th of February. It was intended as a purification of the people, although its ceremonies were among the most revolting of ancient pagan rites. Other authorities, however, hold that the institution of the feast is of much earlier date, and that the candles which are carried in procession in honor of the Mother of God were intended to withdraw the people from the pagan custom of carrying lights through the streets of Rome in honor of a pagan goddess. To reconcile these conflicting opinions, it is said that Pope Gelasius did away with the Lupercalia, but that the feast of the Purification was established at an earlier date. Benedict XIV., after passing the various opinions in review, concludes that the feast was instituted to take the place of the Amburbalia, a pagan sacrifice which was offered in February every five years, after receiving tribute from the provinces; a feast at which those who participated in it went through Rome carrying torches and performing certain ceremonies for the purification of the city. He concludes that Gelasius did away with the Lupercalia, but did not establish the feast of the Purification, and that Pope Sergius I., at the close of the seventh century, substituted the procession of the feast for that of the Amburbalia. But the discussion does not rest here; for other writers insist that the feast of the Purification was celebrated in Jerusalem in the fifth century, and was not then of recent institution. The Bollandists refer the establishment of it to apostolic times, at least in the Eastern Church. This opinion may, I think, be regarded as the most probable, both on account of the weight of the authority on which it rests, and the fact that it was in the East that Mary came to the temple for the performance of the ceremony of the purification. What more natural than that this event should be first commemorated on the spot where it actually took place, though the ceremony may since have undergone modifications ?
The suffix mas, connected with the name of certain feasts, as Christmas, Candlemas, etc., was formerly more common than it is at present, especially in England in Catholic times; and it would appear to owe its origin to the obligation of the members of the gilds and trades-unions to assist at Mass on the feasts of their respective patron saints and on certain other great feasts of the ecclesiastical year, which were designated by the name of the saint or the feast with the suffix mas, as Michaelmas, etc.5
Turning to the blessing of the candles, the mind of the Church is well shown forth in the prayers—five in number—which are recited by the priest during the ceremony, as well as in the antiphons sung during the procession. In the first of these prayers we beg of God,—who created all things, who by the labor of the bees brought this liquid to the perfection of wax, and who, on this day, fulfilled His promise to holy Simeon,—by the invocation of His holy Name and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the saints, to bless and sanctify the candles presented for blessing; that they may be for the service of His people and for the health of their bodies and souls wherever they may chance to be, whether on land or water, and that He would at all times hear the prayers of His people who desire to carry these candles in their hands. In the second prayer our divine Saviour, who was received in the arms of holy Simeon, is entreated to bless and sanctify with the light of His heavenly benediction the candles which His servants desire to receive and carry lighted in honor of His holy Name, to the end that they may be made worthy to be inflamed with His sweetest charity, and may deserve to be presented in the temple of His eternal glory. The third prayer entreats Our Saviour to pour forth His blessing upon the candles, and sanctify them with the light of His grace; and mercifully to grant that as these lights, enkindled with visible fire, dispel the darkness of night, so our hearts, illuminated by invisible fire, that is, the Holy Ghost, may be free from the blindness of every vice; that the eye of our minds being purified, we may discern those things which are pleasing to God and profitable to salvation, so that after the darkness and perils of this world we may be found worthy to be admitted to that light which never fails. In the fourth prayer the Almighty God, who commanded Moses to have the purest oil prepared for the lamps to burn before Him continually, is besought graciously to pour forth the grace of His blessing upon the candles, that as they afford external light, so through the divine mercy the interior light of the Holy Spirit may never be wanting to our minds. In the last prayer our divine Redeemer—who in the substance of our flesh was presented in the temple and recognized by the aged Simeon, enlightened by the Holy Spirit—is mercifully besought that we, enlightened by the same Holy Spirit, may truly acknowledge and faithfully love the same divine Redeemer.
It is not forbidden to sell candles that have been blessed, provided no more is asked for them than the ordinary selling price; in other words, provided no charge is made for the blessing itself.
The faithful in general have caught the spirit of the Church with regard to her blessed candles, and have come to look upon them as one of the most efficacious of the sacramentals. This is amply shown by their lighting them in times of danger—especially from the elements—and by their desire to have the dying expire while holding a blessed candle in the hand—the material light being thus made a symbol of the invisible light that is to guide them after death to the realms of everlasting happiness.
1 The opinions of Dr. Wapelhorst given in this essay are taken for
the most part from an article, “Liturgical Lights,” found in the
American Ecclesiastical Review, vol. ii. pp. 98 et seq.
2 St. John, i. 15.
3 Heb., i. 3.
4 St. Luke, ii. 32; St. John, viii. 12 and i. 9.
5 Wilford’s “Gilds,” passim.