Thinking about Candles

Theology Blog: Thinking about Candles

The Revd Canon John Seymour – Epiphany 2014

I must have been quite a young choirboy when I was first taught to sing words from an ancient Greek hymn, Phos Hilaron, translated by John Keble and set to music by John Stainer:

‘Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
The lights of evening round us shine,
We hymn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit divine.’

The ‘lights of evening’ could possibly refer to the stars, but for centuries, and for those who could afford them, it was a candle that illuminated the evening and saw folk safely on their way to bed.

In our home we’ve always loved candles, but we have to be a bit careful where we live now: the fire alarms are rather sensitive!  The love of candles seems to be quite universal, and Leicester Cathedral is no exception.

Using candles as an aid to worship was brought to my attention quite dramatically on the day in 1963 when I was instituted to my first Leicestershire parish.  We came from a tradition where the use of candles was more or less restricted to power cuts, to a church where (in those days) there were seventeen candles on, around, and above the altar.  The Bishop (Ronald Williams) commented on this in his address, while a local non-conformist minister said to me afterwards:  ‘What are you going to do about all those Romish candles?’  I said I saw them as a sign of the warmth of the welcome the people were giving to their new pastor.  It was a bit of quick thinking, if not strictly true!  But the inclusion of this spot of history does remind us that the use of candles in the English Church has not always been general, often controversial, and at times possibly illegal.

Back to Leicester Cathedral, where each Sunday the faithful acolytes carry in their candles.  During Advent a candle was lit on the Advent Ring, and we were reminded of the characters in the Advent story that the candles represent.  One Sunday we shared in the Sacrament of Baptism and the Paschal or Easter Candle was on hand to light the Baptism Candle.  This is given to the godparent on behalf of the child as a reminder that we are all challenged to ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

We then joyfully celebrated Christmas with crowded candle-lit services, with the splendid new nativity figures bathed in soft candlelight.  Candles were used at a multi-faith service to celebrate the life of the late Nelson Mandela.  No special candles appeared during the Epiphany season, which is surprising, as the whole season from its very name is a season of lightI suspect candles will be used for a rather different purpose at the St Valentine’s Eve event – to create something of a romantic atmosphere?

And now, as I write, Candlemas is just round the corner.  The Promise of His Glory (my 1991 edition p. 259) speaks of Candlemas as being the climax of the whole Advent to Epiphany season.  I wonder?  Surely the climax, (i.e. the most important point) of the season is the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  Candlemas is a fitting end to the season; a turning point (which the same page in The Promise goes on to say) when we look in a different direction: through Lent and Passiontide to the greatest climax of all: Easter Day.

But why is Candlemas so called?  There are so many things to think about that day: The Purification of the Blessed Virgin, (but did, or when did, the Virgin Mary become impure?); The Presentation of Christ, with the dramatic prophecies of Simeon and Anna.  But why Candlemas?  The best reason I can come up with is from a Folklore Calendar on the internet.

‘In pre-Christian times the day was known as the ‘Feast of Lights’,’ (halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox), ‘which celebrated the increased strength of the life-giving sun as winter gave way to spring… it was the day of the year when all the candles that were used in church during the year were brought into church for a blessing.’

The many facets of Candlemas are well expressed in Elizabeth’s Cosnett’s Carol (CP 80).  There are 13 verses in all, all useful teaching material.  Here are just the first and last verses.

‘When candles are lighted on Candlemas Day
The dark is behind us, and spring’s on the way…
The candles invite us to praise and to pray
When Christmas greets Easter on Candlemas Day
A glory dawns in every dark place,
The light of Christ, the fullness of grace.’

Our Cathedral is perhaps best known for its major diocesan and civic services.  But some of its important work is done quietly and regularly in small groups.  Recently I have had reasons to attend the Cancer Care Group.  This was set up by Sue Mason over 10 years ago and has met faithfully almost every Tuesday afternoon since.  Currently there are about 150 names on the prayer list, and these are read out each week, and as we seek to pray (just four or five of us) votive candles are lit.  The word is from the Latin votum: ‘expressing a desire’.  These candles certainly do express a deep desire – for those who suffer the pain and uncertainties of cancer and other serious illness.

Many of the world’s great religions make use of candles: Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism to name but four, as well as our own Christianity.  Leicester Cathedral would be a very different place without its candles.  Symbols are good things.  The word means ‘thrown together’.  It’s opposite is diabol – thrown apart, from which we get the word for devil.  Symbols, but only symbols, not the reality.  The reality for us is Jesus, Jesus the light of the world.  As John the Baptist declares in the Christmas Gospel:

‘This was the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all people… full of grace and truth.’

Finally, some random candle-thoughts which bubble up:

(1) The two altar candles have been moved to the same (south side) of the altar.  This is more a matter of aesthetics than theology which I happen to like.  A mirror-image dualism is not the only way of presenting things.  Balance is more important, which is gained by the presence of the small arrangement of flowers on the north side of the altar.

(2) Has there ever been a thought about giving up candles for Lent and giving the money to the Food Bank?  Quite a challenge!

(3) King Alfred the Great is in the news at present: he used candles to measure the passing of time – so here’s a belated Advent thought: Time passes. We need to be ready.

(4)  Finally, I repeat the words of Dean David already quoted in a previous blog: “When we have fed the poor and cared for the needy, then we can polish the candlesticks”.  This puts it all into proper perspective.

© Canon John Seymour