May Christ, “the true light”, “the sun that knows no sunset” when He comes find us awake.
A candle is not the sun, right. But better such light than none.
Darkness is uncertainty, apprehension and fear. Anyone who has ever had to walk along a forest trail in the darkness of night with a torch knows this. Then steps are taken very carefully, testing to see if the hard path can still be felt under foot or whether it is grass and leaves. It’s even worse when a person finds himself without a light in an underground passage. In the forest you can always look up to see a brighter area in the sky where there is a break in the trees, and so keep more or less on the track. In a labyrinth of passages, it’s not possible. You can try to feel your way in the dark, but it’s a bit more complicated in a maze of passages, all that’s left is to wait. Probably for death. And it would be enough, since there is no sunlight, for there to be another source of light. Oh, for a torch. And everything would be much easier.
Dispel the darkness
It is to this reality that the symbol of the lit candle relates. Its light dispels darkness. It lets us see. Not as the sun does, which illuminates everything. However, it does at least give enough light to be able to move in the dark. You don’t have to feel your way. And for those who are a bit further away, it attracts. Because a person immersed in darkness looks for light. And when it catches his eye, he moves toward it.
The theme of light and its symbolism is found widely in biblical writings. From the first day of creation when God commanded “Let there be light”, through to the exodus of Israel from Egypt where God led the Chosen People with a pillar of cloud, and at night a pillar of fire (for the pursuing Egyptians it was dark), to the joyful announcement by Isaiah of the restoration of Jerusalem:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Is 60:1-3).
Beautiful. A God who is not so much “dwelling in unapproachable light” as is the light – for people living in darkness. He illuminates the darkness and so attracts. Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist) calling Jesus “The dawn from on high” is referring to this. About the coming Messiah he says that will be the one “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1). A beautiful thought, that shows that all “lack of peace”, i.e., quarrels, riots, unrest and wars are darkness.
Jesus refers to Himself as the light in the Gospel according to John after they wanted to stone for adultery. He then said of Himself “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). A telling background, but we won’t develop the thought here. In the next scene, Jesus returns sight to a blind man born blind: the one who lives in darkness He makes it possible to receive life in the light. and He explains: “Night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).
Saying that He is the light of the world, He teaches that His disciples are also to be such a light.
You are the light of the world. You cannot hide a city built on a hill. You also don’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel, you put it on a lampstand, so that it shines on everyone in the house. So let your light shine before people so that they see your good work to the glory of our Father.
Every disciple of Christ is, therefore, to be such a lamp, a candle or a torch; as Jesus is the light, who shines in the darkness which attracts and illuminates the human path, the difficult trail, so that a person knows which way to go. These truths we can realise when we light a candle in church. Both the ones lit on the altar as well as those held during the renewal of baptismal vows, like the “light above lights” carried into the church plunged in darkness on the Easter Vigil. This both reminds us of who Jesus is for us and just who we should be, disciples thanks to His graces, thanks to the fulfilment of His will, and of His family.
I am ready!
With reference to the obvious conclusion that light, the light of the candle, the lamp or the torch shines in the darkness, that you also need to be aware that lighting the candle held in your hand is also a sign of vigilance, of being ready – for action, to go on the road, for work, for play. It’s good to remember the parable of the wise virgins and the foolish virgins (those who took and those who did not take a supply of oil for their lamps), but also the beautiful call of Jesus to be prepared for His second coming: “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:35-37).
The symbolism of the Paschal Candle is waiting for “the sun”, Jesus Christ. In fact, a candle (lamp or torch) held in the hand is always a sign of readiness. When we celebrate the sacrament of baptism and when we renew our baptismal vows. It is a sign of vigilance, a sign that we have accepted the obligations of being a Christian seriously. So that, when the “true light” (J 1) and “the one Morning Star who never sets” (Exsultet) comes again, Jesus Christ will find us watchful.
At this point it’s impossible to resist the temptation to quote the conclusion of the Easter Exsultet, beautifully expressing this double sense – as a sign of dispersing human gloom and the sign of readiness – of a burning candle:
Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honour of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night. Receive it as a pleasing fragrance, and let it mingle with lights of heaven. May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
I burn myself up in service
There is yet one more dimension to the symbolism of the burning candle (of lamps, but less so of torches). It is the sign of sacrifice. There doesn’t seem to be any such symbolism in the Bible (at least I don’t know of any), but the idea is there; the idea of the sacrifice (i.e., burning!) of self for God and in the service of God. However, the symbol is present in the Easter liturgy.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church. But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.
Of course: in order for this candle to burn it takes the work of those who prepared it (bees and indeed the candle-makers). But it is especially beautiful to remember that its light feeds off streams of wax. For the light of Christ to burn in the world, and also for our light to burn before people – so as to glorify the heavenly Father – the “wax” of our egos, dreams, strength, effort needs to be burned. Irreversibly. Put simply: being a light costs. It has to cost.
When we look at candle burning, especially when we hold it in our hands, it’s good to remember that when called to be a light, we also inevitably have to burn away. This our gift to God, to Jesus and His Gospel. To be light, like Christ the light of the world, to be ready to act for this cause, to burn away for it – these are the three dimensions of the burning candle. It raises the question about paschal symbolism and the sun. But more about this in the future