The ceremonial use of lights is found in the practice of many religions. Candles are extremely common and other forms of light, whether fire or other, are also used.
The ceremonial use of lights in the Christian Church probably has a double origin: in a very non-natural symbolism, and in the adaptation of certain pagan and Jewish rites and customs of which the symbolic meaning was Christianized.
Light is everywhere the symbol of joy and of life-giving power, as darkness is of death and destruction. Fire, the most mysterious and impressive of the elements, the giver of light and of all the good things of life, is a thing sacred and adorable in primitive religions, and fire-worship still has its place in two at least of the great religions of the world. The Parsis adore fire as the visible expression of Ahura Mazda, the eternal principle of light and righteousness; the Brahmans worship it as divine and omniscient. The Hindu festival of Diwali (Diyawali, from diya, light), when temples and houses are illuminated with countless lamps, is held every November to celebrate Lakhshmi, the goddess of prosperity.
In the ritual of the Jewish temple fire and light played a conspicuous part. In the Holy of Holies was a cloud of light (shekinali), symbolical of the presence of Yahweh, and before it stood the candlestick with six branches, on each of which and on the central stem was a lamp eternally burning; while in the forecourt was an altar on which the sacred fire was never allowed to go out. Similarly the Jewish synagogues have each their eternal lamp.
In Christianity, from the very first, fire and light are conceived as symbols, if not as visible manifestations, of the divine nature and the divine presence. Christ is the true Light, and at his transfiguration the fashion Christian of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering; when the Holy Ghost descended upon the apostles, there appeared unto them cloven tongues of fire, and it sat upon each of them; at the conversion of St Paul there shined round him a great light from heaven; while the glorified Christ is represented as standing in the midst of seven candlesticks ... his head and hairs white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes as a flame of fire. Christians are children of Light at perpetual war with the powers of darkness.
There is no evidence of any ceremonial use of lights in Christian worship during its first two centuries. It is recorded, indeed, that on the occasion of St. Paul's preaching at Alexandria in Troas there were many lights in the upper chamber; but this was at night. And the most that can be hazarded is that a specially large number were lighted as a festive illumination, as in modern Church festivals. As to a purely ceremonial use, such early evidence as exists is all the other way. A single sentence of Tertullian sufficiently illuminates Christian practice during the 2nd century. On days of rejoicing, he says, we do not shade our door-posts with laurels nor encroach upon the day-light with lamp laurels (die lacto non laurels pastes obumbramus nec lucernis diem infringimus). Lactantius, writing early in the 4th century, is even more sarcastic in his references to the heathen practice. They kindle lights, he says, as though to one who is in darkness. Can he be thought sane who offers the light of lamps and candles to the Author and Giver of all light? . This is primarily an attack on votive lights, and does not necessarily exclude their ceremonial use in other ways. There is, indeed, evidence that they were so used before Lactantius wrote. The 34th canon of the Synod of Elvira (305), which was contemporary with him, forbade candles to be lighted in cemeteries during the daytime, which points to an established custom as well as to an objection to it; and in the Roman catacombs lamps have been found of the 2nd and 3rd centuries which seem to have.
Lucerna been ceremonial or symbolical. Again, according to the Acta of St Cyprian (d. 258), his body was borne to the grave praelucentibus cereis, and Prudentius, in his hymn on the 2nd and martyrdom of St Lawrence, says that in the time of St Laurentius, i.e. the middle of the 3rd century, candles stood in the churches of Rome on golden candelabra. The gift, mentioned by Anastasius, made by Constantine to the Vatican basilica, of a pharum of gold, garnished with 500 dolphins each holding a lamp, to burn before St Peters tomb, points also to a custom well established before Christianity became the state religion.
Whatever previous custom may have been and for the earliest ages it is difficult to determine absolutely because the Christians held their services at night. By the close of the 4th century the ceremonial use of lights had become firmly and universally established in the Church. This is clear, to pass by much other evidence, from the controversy of St Jerome with Vigilantius.
Vigilantius, a presbyter of Barcelona, still occupied the position of Tertullian and Lactantius in this matter. We see, he wrote, a rite peculiar to the pagans introduced into the churches on pretext of religion, and, while the sun is still shining, a mass of wax tapers lighted. ... A great honor to the blessed martyrs, whom they think to illustrate with contemptible little candles (de pilissimis cereolis). Jerome, the most influential theologian of the day, took up the cudgels against Vigilantius, who, in spite of his fatherly admonition, had dared again to open his foul mouth and send forth a filthy stink against the relics of the holy martyrs. If candles are lit before their tombs, are these the ensigns of idolatry? In his treatise contra Vigilantium he answers the question with much common sense. There can be no harm if ignorant and simple people or religious women, light candles in honor of the martyrs. We are not born, but reborn, Christians, and that which when done for idols was detestable is acceptable when done for the martyrs. As in the case of the woman with the precious box of ointment, it is not the gift that merits reward, but the faith that inspires it. As for lights in the churches, he adds that in all the churches of the East, whenever the gospel is to be read, lights are lit, though the sun be rising (jam sole rutilante), not in order to disperse the darkness, but as a visible sign of gladness (ad signum ketitiae demonstrandum). Taken in connection with a statement which almost immediately precedes this Cereos autem non clara luce accendimus, sicut frustra calumniaris: sed ut noctis tenebras hoc solatio temperemus , this seems to point to the fact that the ritual use of lights in the church services, so far as already established, arose from the same conservative habit as determined the development of liturgical vestments, i.e. the lights which had been necessary at the nocturnal meetings were retained, after the hours of service had been altered, and invested with a symbolical meaning.
Already they were used at most of the conspicuous functions of the Church. Paulinus, bishop of Nola (d. 431), describes the altar at the eucharist as crowned with crowded lights, and even mentions the eternal lamp. For their use at baptisms we have, among much other evidence, that of Zeno of Verona for the West, and that of Gregory of Nazianzus for the East. Their use at funerals is illustrated by Eusebius's description of the burial of Constantine, and Jerome's account of that of St Paula. At ordinations they were used, as is shown by the 6th canon of the Council of Carthage (398), which decrees that the acolyte is to hand to the newly ordained deacon ceroferarium cum cereo. This symbolism was not pagan, i.e. the lamps were not placed in the graves as part of the furniture of the dead; in the Catacombs they are found only in the niches of the galleries and the arcosolia, nor can they have been votive in the sense popularized later. Clara coronantur densis altaria lychnis. Continuum scyphus est argenteus aptus ad usum. Sal, ignis et oleum.. Cum alii Pontifices lampads cereosque proferrent, alii choras psallentium ducerent.''.
To trace the gradual elaboration of the symbolism and use of ceremonial lights in the Church, until its full development and systematization in the Middle Ages, would be impossible here. It must suffice to note a few stages in development of the process. The burning of lights before the tombs of martyrs led naturally to their being burned also before relics and lastly before images and pictures. This latter practice, hotly denounced as idolatry during the iconoclastic controversy, was finally established as orthodox by the Second General Council of Nicaea (787), which restored the worship of images. A later development, however, by which certain lights themselves came to be regarded as objects of worship and to have other lights burned before them, was condemned as idolatrous by the synod of Noyon in 1344. The passion for symbolism extracted ever new meanings out of the candles and their use. Early in the 6th century Magnus Felix Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, pointed out the threefold elements of a waxcandle (Opusc. ix. and x.), each of which would make it an offering acceptable to God; the rush-wick is the product of pure water, the wax is the offspring of virgin, bees in the flame is sent from heaven.12 Clearly, wax was a symbol of the Blessed Virgin and the holy humanity of Christ. The later Middle Ages developed the idea. Durandus, in his Rationale, interprets the wax as the body of Christ, the wick as his soul, the flame as his divine nature; and the consuming candle as symbolizing his passion and death.
This may be the Paschal Candle only. In some codices the text runs: Per parochias concessit licentiam benedicendi Cereum Paschalem. In the three variants of the notice of Zosimus given in Duchesnes edition of the Liber pontificalis (I~86I892) the word cera is, however, alone used. Nor does the text imply that he gave to the suburbican churches a privilege hitherto exercised by the metropolitan church. The passage runs: Hic constituit ut diaconi leva tecta haberent de palleis linostimis per parrochias et ut cera benedicatur, &c. Per parrochias here obviously refers to the head-gear of the deacons, not to the candles.
See also the Peregrinoiio Sylviae (386), 86, &c., for the use of lights at Jerusalem, and Isidore of Seville for the usage in the West. That even in the 7th century the blessing of candles was by no means universal is proved by the 9th canon of the council of Toledo (671):De benedicendo cereo et lucerna in privilegiis Paschae. This canon states that candles and lamps are not blessed in some churches, and that inquiries have been made why we do it. In reply, the council decides that it should be done to celebrate the mystery of Christs resurrection. See Isidore of Seville, Conc., in Migne, Pat, tat. lxxxiv. 369.
The most important usage is the reception of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the afternoon of Holy Saturday. This flame is often taken by the faithful to locations all over the world.
When a new temple (church building) is consecrated the bishop kindles a flame in the sanctuary which traditionally should burn perpetually from that time forward. This sanctuary lamp is usually an oil lamp located either on or above the Holy Table (altar). In addition, in the Eastern Orthodox Church there must be candles on the Holy Table during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In some places this takes the form of a pair of white candles, in others it may be a pair of five-branch candlesticks. There is also traditionally a seven-branch candlestick on or behind the Holy Table, recalling the one mandated in the Old Testament Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem.
Around the temple, there are a number of oil lamps burning in front of the icons, especially on the iconostasis. Additionally, the faithful will offer beeswax candles in candle stands. The faithful offer candles as they pray for both the living and the departed. It is customary during funerals and memorial services for everyone to stand holding lit candles. Often everyone will either extinguish their candles or put them in a candle stand at a certain point near the end of the memorial service to indicate that at some point, everyone will have to surrender their soul to God.
The reading from the Gospel Book must always be accompanied by lighted candles, as a sign that Christ is the Light which enlightens all (). When the priest and deacon cense the temple, the deacon will walk with a lighted candle. During processionss, and in some places during the liturgical entrances, either candles or lanterns are carried by altar servers. On certain feast days, the clergy, and sometimes all of the faithful, will stand holding candles for certain solemn moments during the service. This is especially so during Holy Week during the reading of the 12 Passion Gospels on Great Friday, and the Lamentations around the epitaphios on Great Saturday.
The faithful will often keep a lamp burning perpetually in their icon corner. In the Russian Orthodox Church, it is customary to try to preserve the flame from the service of the 12 Passion Gospels and bring it home to bless their house: there is a custom of using the flame from this candle to mark a cross on the lintel of one's doorway before entering after the service, and of then using the flame to re-kindle the lamp in the icon corner.
During the Paschal Vigil, after the Midnight Office, all of the candles and lamps in the temple are extinguished, with the exception of the sanctuary lamp behind the iconostasis, and all wait in silence and darkness. (In Orthodox churches, when possible, the Holy Fire arrives from the Holy Sepulchre during Holy Saturday afternoon and it is used to light anew the flame in the sanctuary lamp.) At the stroke of midnight, the priest censes around the Holy Table, and lights his candle from the sanctuary lamp. Then the Holy Doors are opened and all the people light their candles from the priest's candle. Then, all the clergy and the people exit the church and go in procession three times around it holding lighted candles and singing a hymn of the resurrection.
At every liturgical service, and especially at Mass and at choir services, there must be at least two lighted tapers on the altar, as symbols of the presence at Mass of God and tributes of adoration. For the Mass the rule is that there are six lights at High Mass, four at missa cantata, and two at private masses. At a Pontifical High Mass (i.e. when the bishop celebrates) the lights are seven, because seven golden candlesticks surround the risen Saviour, the chief bishop of the Church (see Rev. i. 12). At most pontifical functions, moreover, the bishop as the representative of Christ is preceded by an acolyte with a burning candle (bugia) on a candlestick. The Ceremoniale Episco, porum (i. 12) further orders that a burning lamp is to hang at all times before each altar, three in front of the high altar, and five before the reserved Sacrament, as symbols of the eternal Presence. In practice, however, it is usual to have only one lamp lighted before the tabernacle in which the Host is reserved. The special symbol of the real presence of Christ is the Sanctus candle, which is lighted at the moment of consecration and kept burning until the communion. The same symbolism is intended by the lighted tapers which must accompany the Host whenever it is carried in procession, or to the sick and dying.
As symbols of light and joy, a candle is held on each side of the deacon when reading the Gospel at Mass; and the same symbolism underlies the multiplication of lights on festivals, their number varying with the importance of the occasion. As to the number of these latter no rule is laid down. They differ from liturgical lights in that, whereas these must be tapers of pure beeswax or lamps fed with pure olive oil (except by special dispensation under Certain circumstances), those used merely to add splendour to the celebration may be of any material; the only exception being, that in the decoration of the altar, gas-lights are forbidden.
In general the ceremonial use of lights in the Roman Catholic Church is conceived as a dramatic representation in fire of the life of Christ and of the whole scheme of salvation. On Easter Eve the new fire, symbol of the light of the newly risen Christ, is produced, and from this are kindled all the lights used throughout the Christian year until, in the gathering darkness (tenebrae) of the Passion, they are gradually extinguished. This quenching of the light of the world is symbolized at the service of Tenebrae in Holy Week by the placing on a stand before the altar of thirteen lighted tapers arranged pyramidally, the rest of the church being in darkness. The penitential psalms are sung, and at the end of each a candle is extinguished. When only the central one is left it is taken down and carried behind the altar, thus symbolizing the nocturnal darkness, so our hearts are illumined by invisible fire, &c. (Missale Rom.). In the form for the blessing of candles extra diem Purificationis B. Mariae Virg. the virtue of the consecrated candles in discomfiting demons is specially brought out: that in whatever places they may be lighted, or placed, the princes of darkness may depart, and tremble, and may fly terror-stricken with all therr ministers from those habitations, nor presume further to disquiet and molest those who serve thee, Almighty God (Rituale Rom.)
Altar candlesticks consist of five parts: the foot, stem, knob in the centre, bowl to catch the drippings, and pricket (a sharp point on which the candle is fixed). It is permissible to use a long tube, pointed to imitate a candle, in which a small taper is forced to the top by a spring (Cong. Rit., tIth May I&78).
The use of ceremonial lights was among the indictments in the impeachment of Laud and other bishops by the House of Commons, but these were not based on the Act of Uniformity. From the Restoration onwards the use of ceremonial lights, though far from universal, was usual again in cathedrals and collegiate churches.
It was not, however, till the Oxford Movement of the 19th century that their use was widely extended in parish churches. The growing custom met with some opposition; the law was appealed to, and in 1872 the Privy Council declared altar lights to be illegal (Martin v. Mackonochie). This judgment, founded as was afterwards admitted on insufficient knowledge, produced no effect. In the absence of any authoritative negative pronouncement, churches returned to practically the whole ceremonial use of lights as practised in the Roman Catholic Church.
The matter was again raised in the case of Read and others v. the Bishop of Lincoln, one of the counts of the indictment being that the bishop had, during the celebration of Holy Communion, allowed two candles to be alight on a shelf or retable behind the communion table when they were not necessary for giving light. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in whose court the case was heard (1889), decided that the mere presence of two candles on the table, burning during the service but lit before it began, was lawful under the first Prayer-Book of Edward VI. and had never been made unlawful. On the case being appealed to the Privy Council, this particular indictment was dismissed on the ground that the vicar, not the bishop, was responsible for the presence of the lights.
The custom of placing lighted candles round the bodies of the dead, especially when lying in state, has never wholly died out in the Anglican communion. In the 18th century, moreover, it was still customary in England to accompany a funeral with lighted tapers. A contemporary illustration shows a funeral cortege preceded and accompanied by boys, each carrying four lighted candles in a branched candlestick. The usage in this respect in Anglo-Catholic churches is a revival of pre-Reformation ceremonial as is found in the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Church of Ireland, a branch of Anglicanism that is both Catholic and Apostolic in origins and in the closest historical and doctrinal communion with the younger Church of England, but with a more generally robust middle- to low-church tradition in ritual, the use of candles and lanterns of all kinds is canonically forbidden except for the specific purpose of "giving light" during services. This conforms to that Church's similar abjuring of, for example, incense, all but rather simple clerical vestments, mitres, eucharistic wafers, the Reserved Sacrament and the elevation of the sacred elements in the Eucharist.