Friday, December 01, 2006

Shedding Light on the use of Votives

Written from a more Roman perspective, this article appeared in the July 14, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Herald." Nonetheless, it may shed a bit of brightness on the subject of votives.

Why the post? Well, in our community, votive candles are present when we gather as a fellowship to celebrate and worship God. Although our roots may be far from the Roman or Anglican traditions, we employ votives to offer a point of praxis and response to the working of God-and specifically the conviction of God the Holy Spirit- as we gather. Lighting a candle is seen as a tangible action one can take to “put feet to” the conviction - or prompting- of God the Spirit to repent, unburden, release, yield, lament, grieve, etc.

Today, for example, I am prompted to pray for a friend and brother who really struggles with loneliness. Dysfunction within the body of Christ certainly contributes to the struggle yet a far greater portion of the causes of the struggle are self imposed. Regardless of the root cause, I know my brother hurts and I must hurt with him. So, I act to engage him in his life but I also pray. Likewise, to interact with my Father and express my conviction (faith) that my He hears and cares, and, in a sense to leave the matter in the hands of God, I light a candle in prayer for my brother as I petitionmy Father for his encouragement, sustenance, and willingness to risk for the benefit of new friendships.

Being unfamiliar with how the votives are used in the broader church, I thought the following article might provide fodder for further discussion. In the end, our hope is in God alone. Clearly, ritual and pious practice have no merit accept in the context of a living God and trust in Him; nonetheless, the article may be worth the read.

SHEDDING LIGHT ON USE OF VOTIVE CANDLES
by Fr. William Saunders

Before I address the use of votive candles in particular, we have to appreciate the symbolism of light and the general usage of candles in religious practice. In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple and the synagogues not only to ensure the ability to light other candles or oil lamps in the evening but also to show the presence of God (cf. Ex 27:20-21 and Lev 24:24). Later, the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other writings of Sacred Scripture were kept, to show reverence to the Word of God. (This practice probably influenced our own one of having a lit candle near the tabernacle to indicate the presence of and to show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.)

Roman pagan culture also used candles in religious practice. Lit candles were used in religious and military processions, showing the divine presence, aid or favor of the gods. With the development of emperor worship, candles were also lit near his image as a sign of respect and reverence. Remember that by the time of Jesus, the emperor was considered divine and even given the titles Pontifex Maximus (high priest) and Dominus et Deus (Lord and God).

Christians adapted the use of lit candles (or even oil lamps in the Eastern Roman Empire) for Mass, liturgical processions, evening prayer ceremonies, funeral processions and, again, to show reverence to the reserved Blessed Sacrament. Moreover, there is evidence that lit candles or oil lamps were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s, and before sacred images and relics by the 300s. St. Jerome (d 420), in his “Contra Vigilantium”, attested to this practice. Note, however, that this practice probably existed well before our available written evidence.

In our Catholic tradition, in early times as well as today, light has a special significance - Christ Recall Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. No follower of Mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life" (Jn 8:12) and "I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in Me from remaining in the dark" (Jn 12:46).

Moreover, the prologue of St. John's Gospel connects Christ and true life with the imagery of light: "Whatever came to be in Him found life, life for the light of men" and "The real light which gives light to every man was coming into the world" (Jn 1:4, 9). For this reason, in our liturgy for the sacrament of baptism, the priest presents a candle lit from the Paschal candle, which in turn symbolizes the Paschal mystery, and says to the newly baptized, "You have been enlightened by Christ Walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts. When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom" (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).

The light, then, is a symbol of faith, truth, wisdom, virtue, grace, the divine life, charity, the ardor of prayer and the sacred presence which flow from Christ Himself.

With this background, we can appreciate the usage of votive candles. Here, as in early Christian times, we light a candle before a statue or sacred image of our Lord or of a saint. Of course, we do not honor the statue or the image itself, but the one whom that statue or image represents. The light signifies our prayer offered in faith coming into the light of God. With the light of faith, we petition our Lord in prayer, or petition the saint to pray with us and for us to the Lord. The light also shows a special reverence and our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.

Interestingly, in the Middle Ages, the symbolism of the votive candles was elaborated. St. Radigund (d. 587) described a practice whereby a person would light a candle or several candles which equaled his own height, this was called "measuring to" such a saint Although it may seem peculiar to us, this "measuring" actually reflects the idea of the candle representing the person in faith who has come into the light to offer his prayer.

Also, some medieval spiritual writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: bees wax symbolized the purity of Christ, the wick, the human soul of Christ, and the light His divinity. Also, the burning candle symbolized a sacrifice, which is made in both the offering of the prayer and the acceptance of the Lord's Will.

In all, the usage of votive candles is a pious practice which continues today in many churches. The symbolism does remind us that prayer is a "coming into" the light of Christ, allowing our souls to be filled with His light, and letting that light bum on in our souls even though we may return to our other activities.

Fr. Saunders is associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish and president of the Notre Dame Institute, both in Alexandria, VA.

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