My last ti morceau closed with “long after the funeral is ended, prayer for the deceased continues.” Having come to the close of a long series of reflections on the Church’s Funeral Rites, perhaps this is a nice time to transition into a series of morceaux on prayer.
Let’s start with votive candles. A small votive candle stand was put back into the Cathedral a few years ago. It’s proven to be quite popular. Both before and after Mass, and on the occasion of a short prayer “visit” to the church – especially in this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy – people frequently light a candle or two, and often make a small donation to help defray the costs of the candles, matches and cleanup.
What’s the meaning of lighting votive candles, you might ask? I would say that they have three principal purposes: they are symbolic reminders to us, they represent promises kept, and they are placeholders for our prayers.
First, by simply giving us an external item to focus on votive candles remind us of the need for prayer and of the object of our prayer. Much like an icon of the Lord or of our Blessed Mother, or flowers or incense or statues or other physical items like rosaries, holy water, etc., we human beings use physical things to help our prayer. There are few simple things more mysterious and beautiful than a candle flame, and so ritualizing our prayers by using candles comes pretty naturally to us.
The word “votive” comes from the Latin votum meaning “promise,” and candles are often lit with a specific intention in mind. It’s a very Catholic thing to say to someone that you will “light a candle” for them, meaning that you’ve promised to pray for them. Another common reason to light votive candles is out of gratitude to God for answered prayers: the Lord, after all, always keeps His promises!
Lastly, as the candle continually burns – usually long after we leave the church – it symbolizes the ongoing prayers and loving concern we have for our intention. Whatever person or situation we’re lifting up to God continues after we go back to our work, our homes and our other distractions. In this vein the candles often are called “vigil” lights, from the Latin vigilia, which means “waiting” or “watching”), for they carry on in a comforting way, the solidarity of prayer we have with God and His holy Church.