Why light a candle?
Lighting a candle is one of the oldest Christian practices that dates back to the time of Moses. As far back as the time of Exodus we hear how the people were instructed to “keep a flame burning perpetually” (Exodus 27:19-20), as “perpetual incense before the Lord from generation to generation” (Exodus 30:7-8) and as a “lamp stand in the Tent of Meeting… set up before the Lord as He has commanded Moses” (Exodus 40:24-25).
Christ himself added a further dimension to our use of candles. Jesus says of himself:
“I am the Light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life” (John 8:12).
Early Christians, who already saw lighting candles as an act of worship and devotion, began to also see them as a symbol of communion with Christ and a symbol of Him and His love in the darkness. They would often place candles on the tombs of martyrs in the catacombs. They did this because they understood the martyr to be a person who, now being certainly in heaven, was in complete communion with God. So as Catholics, we believe it is only those in hell who are truly dead and that those in heaven especially are living in a higher reality (John 3:16).
This being so, we ask this person in full communion with Christ to pray for us in much the same way we would ask a dear and close friend. Due to their complete communion with God, their intersessions are especially helpful.
In lighting a candle before a relic, statue or icon we are saying that God resides fully within that person, the person is in full communion with God and that that person is giving perpetual glory to God. Catholics practice this not to honour the image itself, but rather the one it truly represents. When we ask this saint to pray with and for us, this light, as it is kept burning, also shows our desire to remain in God’s presence as we go through our daily duties at home and in the workplace.
Lastly, when candles are lit before Christ’s image, it is done to show our reverence to Him who deserves our adoration and thanksgiving and who alone can forgive our sins and bring us back into a deeper relationship with Him. Only when candles are lit before images of God are they being used for worship of the depicted figure.