If there is one thing that can be said about the catholic church which is true whether said by it members or it opponents, it must be the fact that catholics sure like their candles. I remember several times being presented a list of reasons why the catholic church is false, which listed dozens of inventions of the church that apparently the person handing me this information hadn’t really read or thought about. I have found that more often than not, it is the catholic who has to do the homework for such people, which meant I had to explain why all of these criticisms were wrong to begin with. The problem with this list of catholic inventions, is that its merely the result of another invention not made by the church, and that is the “Protestant invention of Sola Scriptura (16th century)”. It is hard for those who hold such a belief to grasp the real history of the church as it developed over the centuries and as such they pick out points in this developement process which they disagree with and call it an “invention”, then imply that this is proof against the church. I will usually start by pointing out that the such things as the “Doctrine of the Trinity (2nd-3rd century)” or the “Canon of Scripture (3rd-4th century)” should also be considered “inventions” since they came from the same church and in the same centuries as other inventions.
However the point of all this isn’t about apologetics, rather it is about the use of candles, which makes it on the list of catholic inventions. apparently the use of candles during worship is “an invention” of the catholic church from the year 320 AD. This, as mentioned, isn’t really true. Candles were used in Jewish worship long before this, and even if this were not the case, it should be obvious that candles in a utilitarian way would simply provide light. But it is this criticism that demonstrates an attitude or maybe even a stereotype about the catholic and the candle. And in this there is some truth. Catholic use candles during Mass; at home; to symbolize the Holy Spirit; during the Easter vigil and at shrines. Candles present to us an idea or image of light and life. They can be a symbol of Jesus, the Light of the World; they can represent our prayers; they are even used to draw attention to objects such as the Scriptures or the Eucharist during Liturgy.
The Tenebrae is a service which is celebrated during the Lenten season and is another example of the use of candles. The word tenebrae is from Latin and translates as “darkness”. Like the Stations of the Cross, which is also a Lenten service in the catholic church, the Tenebrae service tells the story of the Passion of Christ. The church is lit by a set of candles, which after psalms and readings from the Gospel will be extinguished one by one as the story continues. The last candle is hidden or extinguished as the Passion ends with the death of Jesus. The service grows darker and darker until that last candle is left, a single point of light which we all know will soon be removed. The candle will then be replaced to symbolize the resurrection. It is a quiet observance and all depart in silence. The imagery and presentation of this particular service is wonderful. Like so much of the catholic faith, it ties in the spiritual with the physical, to present the story of the Gospel. For those who choose to see life through a more mystical or contemplative worldview, such devotions can open up even greater ideas. It can place me at Calvary, a participant in the Passion. It also reminds me of Gods covenant with Abraham where in the darkness of night a flaming torch and smoking fire pot entered the area of sacrifice (Gen 15). Moses and the burning bush. And especially when the last candle is remaining, and the Gospel reading tells of the death of Jesus, the last flame is like a star shining in the night sky, even that star which appeared in the sky heralding His Birth.
The use of candles in worship, as well as other catholic devotions, are one of the great things about the church. It may be a criticism from some but in the end I will take the candle over the “Protestant invention of using lightbulbs during worship c1900 AD.” any day of the week.