There was a time when the world was lit only by the sun, or by fire. Throughout most of human history, our early mornings and nights were lit by candles. Today much of our world is illuminated by electricity. But for us Catholics, candles are still important.
Each year at the Easter Vigil, our most sacred liturgy, we begin by blessing a bonfire, and then lighting the Pascal Candle, a large candle that represents the light of the Risen Christ come into the world. The flame of the Pascal Candle is passed throughout the congregation until the entire church is bright with it’s light. The Pascal candle is also present at both baptisms and funerals, symbolizing the presence of Christ at both ends of our lives.
In many Catholic churches you can see a rack of small candles, or vigil lights, burning by a statue of a saint, or somewhere near the altar. Each of these flames represents someone’s prayer. Often people will light a candle on their way out of church to symbolize that their prayer remains in God’s presence, even as they must depart from the church. These vigil lights are symbols of hope. Just as a single candle can dispel the darkness, a single prayer can bring healing, renewal, and hope.
In some places, even in some of the ancient Churches of Rome, vigil lights have been replaced with banks of small electric lights. I think that’s a shame. Somehow, throwing a switch can never replace the soothing ritual of putting a coin in the offering box, and taking a wooden stick and lighting a small candle with praying for a distant friend.