FREE Catholic Classes
Upon the subject of the liturgical use of lights, as an adjunct of the services of the Church, something has already been said under such headings as ALTAR (IN LITURGY), sub-title Altar-Candles; BENEDICTION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT; CANDLES; CANDLESTICKS; LAMPS AND LAMPADARII. The present article will be concerned only with the more general aspect of the question, and in particular with the charge so often levelled against Catholicism of adopting wholesale the ceremonial practices of the pagan world.
How far the use of lights in the daytime as an adjunct of the Liturgy can be traced back to the second or third century A. D. is not quite easy to decide. On the one hand, there seems to be some evidence that the Christians themselves repudiated the practice. Although Tertullian ("Apol.", xlvi and xxxv; "De Idololat.", xv) does not make any direct reference to the use of lights in religious worship, still he speaks in strong terms of the uselessness of burning lamps in the daytime as an act of piety towards the emperors. This would be somewhat inconsistent, if the Christians themselves had been open to the same reproach. Moreover, several of the Fathers of the fourth century might seem to be more explicit in their condemnation of a display of lamps. For example, about the year 303, Lactantius writes: "They [the pagans ] burn lights as to one dwelling in darkness. . . Is he to be thought in his right mind who offers for a gift the light of candles and wax tapers to the author and giver of light? . . . But their Gods, because they are of the earth, need light that they need not be in darkness" ("Institut. Div.", VI, ii). In like manner, St. Gregory of Nazianzus , towards the end of the same century, observes: "Let not our dwelling-place blaze with visible light and resound with minstrelsy, for this indeed is the custom of the Greek holy-month, but let us not honour God with these things and exalt the present season with unbecoming rites, but with purity of soul and cheerfulness of mind and with lamps which enlighten the whole body of the Church, i.e. with divine contemplations and thoughts" (Orat., v, 35). The rhetorical character of such passages makes it dangerous to draw inferences. It may well be that the writers are merely protesting against the illuminations which formed part of the ordinary religious cultus of the emperors, and wish to state forcibly the objections against a similar practice which was beginning to find favour among Christians. It is, at any rate certain that even earlier than this the liturgical use of lights must have been introduced. The decree of the Spanish Council of Illiberis, or Elvira (about A. D. 305), is too obscure to afford a firm basis for argument (see Hefele - Leclercq, "Hist. des Conciles", I, 212). Still this prohibition, "that candles be not lighted in a cemetery during the day, for the spirits of the saints ought not to be disquieted" (can. xxxiv), at least shows that the practice — which we know to have been long in use among pagans — of burning lights, for some symbolical or superstitious reason, even in the daytime, was being adopted among the Christians also. To discuss in detail the perplexing and seemingly inconsistent references of St. Jerome to the use of lights would not be possible here. But two facts stand out clearly:
- (1) that he admitted the existence of a pretty general custom of burning candles and lamps in honour of the martyrs, a custom which he apologizes for without unreservedly approving it; and
- (2) that the saint, though he denies that there is any general practice among the Christians of burning lights during the daytime, still admits at least some instances of a purely liturgical use of light.
Thus he says: "Apart from honouring the relics of martyrs, it is the custom, through all the Churches of the East, that when the gospels are to be read lights are kindled, though the sun is already shining, not, indeed, to dispel darkness, but to exhibit a token of joy. . . and that, under the figure of bodily light, that light may be set forth of which we read in the psalter 'thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths" (C. Vigilantium, vii). This testimony is particularly valuable because it so clearly refutes any exclusively utilitarian view of the use of lights in the churches.
From Eusebius, St. Paulinus of Nola, the "Peregrinatio Ætheriæ" (Pilgrimage of Ætheria), and other authorities, we have abundant evidence that the Christians of the fourth century, and probably earlier still, upon Easter eve and some other solemn festivals, made a great display of lamps and candles of all kinds. Moreover, this does not seem to have been confined to the nocturnal vigil itself, for St. Paulinus in describing the feast of St. Felix to whom his church was dedicated, tells us in verse how "the bright altars are crowned with lamps thickly set. Lights are burnt, odorous with waxed papyri. They shine by night and day; thus night is radiant with the brightness of the day, and the day itself, bright in heavenly beauty, shines yet more with light doubled by countless lamps " ("Poem.", xiv, "Nat." iii, in P. L., LXI, 467). Still this poetical language may very possibly mean no more than that in a rather dark church it was found desirable to keep the lamps burning even in daytime upon great festivals, when there was a large concourse of people. It tells us nothing of any use of lights which is liturgical in the stricter sense of the word. The same may be said of various references to the festal adornment of churches with lamps and candles which may be found in the writings of the Christian poet Prudentius (cf. P. L., LIX, 819, 829; and LX, 300). Still, when we find in the newly discovered "Testament of our Lord" (l. 19) an injunction regarding church buildings, that "all places should be lighted both for a type and also for reading", it seems clear that St. Jerome was not alone in attaching a mystical significance to the use of lights. Hence we may infer that before the days (about A. D. 475) of the liturgical homilist Narsai (see LAMPS AND LAMPADARII) the use of lamps and candles around the altar during the Liturgy had become universal.
It should be added that no great importance can be attached to the mention by St. Paulinus of Nola , of "a perpetual light" in the church ("continuum scyphus argenteus aptus ad usum"; cf. P. L., LXI, 539). This certainly cannot be assumed to have been intended as a mark of respect to the Blessed Sacrament reserved for the sick. In the days before the invention of matches the continuance of some source of fire from which a light could be readily obtained was a matter of great convenience. Such a perpetual light seems to have been usually kept up, then as now, in Jewish synagogues (cf. Exodus 27:20 ; Leviticus 24:2 ), but it was only the later Talmudists who discovered in this a purpose of honouring the Torah, or Books of the Law, preserved in the Ark. The same utilitarian design probably underlay any Christian practice, which, after all, is not very widely attested, of keeping a light perpetually burning in the church.
But to return to the liturgical use of lights in the stricter sense, there are not wanting many considerations to suggest that, despite the lack of direct evidence, this practice is probably of very much older date than the fourth century. To begin with, the seven-branched "candlestick", or more accurately lamp-stand, was a permanent element in the Temple ritual at Jerusalem and more than one Jewish festival (e.g. the Dedication feast and that of Tabernacles), was marked by a profuse use of lights. Moreover, the Apocalypse (i, 12; iv, 5; xi, 4), in the prominence which it gives to the mention of candlesticks and lamps, is probably only echoing the more or less liturgical conceptions already current at the time. Again, the fact that the Liturgy was at first no doubt celebrated in the evening (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:21 ), as also the necessity that the faithful should often assemble by stealth (as in the catacombs ) or in the early hours of the morning (cf. Pliny, "Epp", X, n. 97 — ante lucem convenire; and Tertullian, "De Cor.", iii — antelucanis cœtibus ), render it highly probable that artificial light must have come to be regarded as an ordinary adjunct of the Liturgy. Hence the use of lamps and candles was probably continued even when not actually needed, just as, in more modern days, the bishop's bugia , which in the beginning served an entirely practical purpose, has come in time to be purely ceremonial. It is also noteworthy that early representations of the Last Supper nearly always give prominence to the lamp, while something of the same kind obtains in the first rude sketches of Christian altars. In any case, lamps and chandeliers are conspicuous amongst the earliest recorded presents to churches (see the "Liber Pontificalis", ed. Duchesne, passim; and cf. the inventory of Cirta, A. D. 303, in Morcelli, "Africa Christiana", II, 183; and Beissel, "Bilder aus der altchrist. Kunst", 247).
Both in ancient and modern times, the reproach has been leveled against the Church that in her ceremonial use of lights she has taken over without scruple the sensuous and often idolatrous practices of paganism. For this charge there is very little real justification. To begin with, it must be evident that such simple elements as light, music, rich attire, processions, ablutions, and lustrations, flowers, unguents, incense, etc., belong, as it were, to the common stock of all ceremonial, whether religious or secular. If there is to be any solemnity of external worship at all it must include some at least of these things, and whether we turn to the polytheistic ritual of ancient Greece and Rome, or to the nations of the far East, or to the comparatively isolated civilizations of the aborigines of Mexico and Peru, human striving after impressiveness is found to manifest itself in very similar ways. A multiplicity of lights is always in some measure joyous and decorative, and it is a principle taught by everyday experience that marks of respect which are shown at first with a strictly utilitarian purpose are regarded in the end as only the more honorific if they are continued when they are plainly superfluous. Thus an escort of torches or candle-bearers, which is almost a necessity in the dark, and is a convenience in the twilight, becomes a formality indicative of ceremonious respect if maintained in the full light of day. Again, since the use of lights was so familiar to Jewish ritual, there is no sufficient ground for regarding the Christian Church as in this respect imitative either of the religions of Greece and Rome or of the more oriental Mithra worship. At the same time, it seems probable enough that certain features of Christian ceremonial were directly borrowed from Roman secular usages. For example, the later custom that seven acolytes with candlesticks should precede the pope, when he made his solemn entry into the church, is no doubt to be traced to a privilege which was common under the Empire of escorting the great functionaries of the State with torches. This right is expressly recognised in the "Notitia Dignitatum", but it may also be found in embryo at an earlier date, when the Consul Duilius for his victory over the Carthaginians, in the third century before Christ, obtained the privilege of being escorted home by a torch and a flute player. But granting, as even so conservative an historian as Cardinal Baronius is fully prepared to grant, a certain amount of direct borrowing of pagan usages, this is no subject of reproach to the Catholic Church. "What", he says, "is to prevent profane things, when sanctified by the word of God, being transferred to sacred purposes? Of such pagan rites laudably adopted for the service of the Christian religion we have many examples. And with regard more especially to lamps and candles, of which we are now speaking, who can reasonably find fault if those same things which were once offered to idols are now consecrated to the honour of the martyrs ? If those lamps which were kindled in the temples on Saturdays — not as though the gods needed light, as even Seneca points out (Ep. xv, 66), but as a mark of veneration — are now lighted in the honour of the Mother of God ? If the candles which were formerly distributed at the Saturnalia are now identified with the feast of the Purification of our Lady? What, I ask, is there so surprising if holy bishops have allowed certain customs firmly rooted among pagan peoples, and so tenaciously adhered to by them that even after their conversion to Christianity they could not be induced to surrender them, to be transferred to the worship of the true God ?" ( Baronius, "Annales", ad ann. 58, n. 77).
With regard to the use of lights in direct connexion with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we find the whole system of portable lights elaborated in the earliest of the "Ordines Romani". Indeed, St. Jerome's plain reference, already quoted, to the carrying of lights at the Gospel, seems probably to take the practice back to at least three hundred years earlier, even if we may not appeal, as many authorities have done, to the words of the Acts of the Apostles (xx, 7-8): "And on the first day of the week, when we were assembled to break bread, Paul discoursed with them. . . . And there were a great number of lamps in the upper chamber where we were assembled." It does not seem to have been customary to place lights upon the altar itself before the eleventh century, but the "Ordines Romani" and other documents make it clear that, many centuries before this, lights were carried in procession by acolytes (see ACOLYTE), and set down upon the ground or held in the hand while Mass was being offered and the Gospel read. A decree of the so-called Fourth Council of Carthage directs that in the ordination of an acolyte a candlestick is to be given him, but this collection of canons does not belong, as was once supposed, to the year 398, but to the time of St. Cæsarius of Arles (about A. D. 512). A little later, i.e. in 636, St. Isidore of Seville (Etymol., VII, xii, n. 29) speaks quite explicitly on the point: " Acolytes ", he says, "in Greek, are called Ceroferarii in Latin, from their carrying wax candles when the Gospel is to be read or the sacrifice to be offered. For then lights are kindled by them, and carried, not to drive away darkness, as the sun is shining, but for a sign of joy, that under the form of material light may be represented that Light of which we read in the Gospel: That was the true light." It was only at a later date that various synodal decrees required the lighting of first one candle, and afterwards of two, during the time of the celebration of Mass.
The use of lights in baptism, a survival of which still remains in the candle given to the catechumen, with the words: "Receive this burning light and keep thy baptism so as to be without blame", etc., is also of great antiquity. It is probably to be connected in a very immediate way with the solemnities of the Easter vigil, when the font was blessed, and when, after careful preparation and a long series of "scrutinies", the catechumens were at last admitted to the reception of the Sacrament. Dom Morin (Revue Bénédictine, VIII, 20; IX, 392) has given excellent reason for believing that the ceremonial of the paschal candle may be traced back to at least the year 382 in the lifetime of St. Jerome. Moreover the term photisthentes ( illuminati ), so constantly applied to the newly baptized in early writings, most probably bears some reference to the illumination which, as we know from many sources, marked the night of Holy Saturday . Thus St. Ambrose (De Laps. Virg., v, 19), speaking of this occasion, mentions "the blazing light of the neophytes ", and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his great "Sermon on Holy Baptism ", tells the candidates that "the lamps which you will kindle are a symbol of the illumination with which we shall meet the Bridegroom, with the lamps of our faith shining, not carelessly lulled to sleep" (Orat., xl, 46; cf. xlv, 2).
Again, the pagan use of lights at funerals seems to have been taken over by the Church as a harmless piece of ceremonial to which a Christian colour might easily be given. The early evidence upon this point in the writings of the Fathers is peculiarly abundant, beginning with what Eusebius tells us of the lying in state of the body of the Emperor Constantine : "They lighted candles on golden stands around it, and afforded a wonderful spectacle to the beholders, such as never was seen under the sun since the earth was made" (Vita. Const., iv, 66). Similarly, St. Jerome tells us of the obsequies of St. Paula in 386: "She was borne to the grave by the hands of bishops, who even put their shoulders under the bier, while other pontiffs carried lamps and candles before her" (Ad Eustoch., ep. cviii, n. 29). So, again in the West, at the funeral of St. Germanus of Auxerre, "The number of lights beat back the rays of the sun, and maintained their brightness even through the day" (Constantius, "Vita S. Germani", II, 24).
It is also certain that, from a very early period, lamps and candles were burnt around the bodies, and then, by a natural transition, before the relics, of the martyrs. How far this was merely a development of the use of lights in funerals, or how far it sprang from the earlier pagan custom of displaying a number of lamps as a tribute of honour to the emperor or others, it is not easy to decide. The practice, as we have seen, was known to St. Jerome, and is with some reservation defended by him. This burning of lights before shrines, relics, and statues naturally assumed great developments in the Middle Ages. Bequests to various "lights" in the churches which the testator desired to benefit generally occupy a considerable space in medieval wills, more particularly in England.
Upon the symbolism of ecclesiastical lights much has been written by medieval liturgists from Amalarius downwards. That all such lights typify Jesus Christ, Who is the Light of the World, is a matter of general agreement, while the older text of the "Exultet" rendered familiar the thought that the wax produced by virgin bees was a figure of the human body which Christ derived from His immaculate Mother. To this it was natural to add that the wick was emblematic of Christ's human soul, while the flame represented His Godhead. But the medieval liturgists also abound in a variety of other symbolic expositions, which naturally are not always quite consistent with one another.School or Church closed? - Here's FREE help!
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.