Like many faith traditions, candles are used as a source of light – before electric lights were invented, candles were the source (along with sunlight) of light inside of churches, especially on the altar so the priest could read the prayers while celebrating Mass. But there are certain types of candles used in Catholic (and other Western Christian) churches that have particular significance.
The Paschal candle is a large, white candle used at liturgy in the Western Rites of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.). A new Paschal candle is blessed and lit every year at Easter, and is used throughout the Paschal season which is during Easter and then throughout the year on special occasions, such as baptisms and funerals.
The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes the eternal presence of Christ, light of the world in the midst of his people; he who is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Alpha and Omega. The Paschal candle is sometimes referred to as the “Easter candle” or the “Christ candle.” The term “Paschal” comes from the word Pesach, which in Hebrew means Passover, and relates to the Paschal mystery of salvation. The tall white candle in many ways signifies the Divine pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that lead the Israelites in their Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
For congregations that use a Paschal candle it is the largest candle in the worship space. In most cases today the candle will display several common symbols:
- The cross is always the central symbol, most clearly identifying it as the Paschal candle
- The Greek letters alpha and omega signify that God is the beginning and the end (from the Book of Revelation)
- The current year represents God in the present amidst the congregation
- Five grains of incense (most often red) are embedded in the candle (sometimes encased in wax “nails”) during the Easter Vigil to represent the five wounds of Jesus: the three nails that pierced his hands and feet, the spear thrust into his side, and the thorns that crowned his head.
A second kind of candle found especially, though not exclusively, in Catholic churches is the votive candle. These small candles are usually found in small groups of rows in front of statues of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary or other saints, and are lit when a prayer of intercession is said, to “keep the fire burning” and the intention to “stay alive” when the person who said the prayer has to leave. In many cases, the person leaves a small donation (coins or a dollar bill) in a box or basket nearby to cover the cost of the candles.
A third kind of candle found in Catholic churches is the sanctuary candle. This is a candle encased in a glass jar, about 10 inches high, and kept in a red lamp holder very close to the tabernacle (the fixed, locked box where the consecrated Hosts or Eucharist is “reserved” – kept – between Masses and for veneration). Catholics believe that the bread (Host) consecrated by the priest at Mass is the real body of Christ, not just a symbol, and therefore the sanctuary candle is a light meant to show that “Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, is here present.”
Thank you Michael Hovey for the answer to this question!