An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


Candles have extensive ceremonial use in the Christian liturgical tradition. Lighted candles may be seen to symbolize the light of Christ, or the light of the gospel, or simply to remind the congregation that the time and space for worship are sacred. Candles provide illumination that enhances the beauty of the church, and may provide additional light for worship. Candles may be carried in procession by acolytes, and held as the gospel is said or sung. Candles may be placed on the altar, or on a reredos behind the altar, or on pavement lights beside the altar. The BCP provides for the lighting of the altar candles at certain times in special services. At the Easter Vigil, the altar candles are lighted after the Renewal of Baptismal Vows and before the Easter Acclamation, "Alleluia. Christ is risen" (BCP, p. 204). Candles are lighted after the dedication of the altar by the bishop at the Consecration of a Church (BCP, p. 574). At the Order of Worship for the Evening, the lighting of the altar candles and other candles follows the Prayer for Light and precedes the hymn "O Gracious Light" (Phos hilaron). (BCP, p. 112). The BOS provides a variety of anthems (Lucernaria) at the candle lighting for optional use at the Order of Worship for the Evening, including seasonal anthems. Certain candles have special liturgical uses. The Paschal candle is a large, decorated candle that symbolizes the light of Christ who was crucified, died, rose, and ascended into heaven. It is lighted at the Easter Vigil, and at all services during the season of Easter. The Advent Wreath has four candles that represent the four Sundays of the season of Advent, and may also include a "Christ candle" that is lighted on Christmas Eve. A candle may be given to each of the newly baptized or a godparent after baptism. This candle may be lighted from the Paschal candle, and it serves as a reminder of baptism. Candles may be lighted and extinguished with a candle taper.

Candles are often used as a sign of festivity and solemnity in Christian worship. The use of such lights has a long and varied tradition. Acts 20 records that there were "many lights" at the service at Troas when Paul and other Christians gathered to break bread. Lamps and candles were in normal use in Christian worship by the fourth century, but for many years it was not customary to place candles on the altar. The first known mention of the use of altar lights was a twelfth-century report that two candles flanked an altar cross in the papal chapel. The injunction of Edward VI in 1547 called for there to be two lights on the high altar "for the signification that Christ is the very true light of the world." Candles have been used in some English cathedrals and churches since the seventeenth century. The use of candles at the eucharist was disputed in the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church during the nineteenth century. During the years of the ritualist controversy in the Episcopal Church, the General Conventions of 1868, 1871, and 1874 considered proposals to prohibit the use of altar candles. Use of candles in worship was strongly favored by Episcopalians of the catholic tradition and resisted by those of the evangelical tradition. The use of altar candles was never prohibited by General Convention. Use of altar lights and other candles in the worship of the church is now customary. Some BCP services make special provision for the use of candles in worship. The Easter Vigil service begins with the lighting of the Paschal candle, which is to burn at all services from Easter Day through Pentecost (BCP, pp. 285-287). In an Order of Worship for the Evening, the candle lighting follows the Prayer for Light (p. 112).

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.