The sight of burning votive candles is common in many churches. Often the first thing anyone notices upon entering a church is a stand of votive candles. Usually it has several rows of glass candle holders and a place to make an offering. The stands are usually placed in devotional spaces, often before statues of saints or at shrines, and usually in a quiet corner. We often see people making an offering, taking the candle, lighting it, saying a prayer, and placing the candle back in the stand. So what is this all about? How did this tradition get its start?
According to A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals, by Ann Ball (Our Sunday Visitor Books), the practice of lighting candles probably has its origins in the custom of burning lights at the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs. The lights burned as a sign of solidarity with Christians still on earth. Because the lights continually burned as a silent vigil, they became known as vigil lights.
Vigil Lights (from the Latin vigilia, which means "waiting" or "watching") are traditionally accompanied by prayers of attention or waiting. Another common type of candle offering is the votive light. Such an offering is indicative of seeking some request from the Lord. Lighting a votive candle is a way of extending one's prayer and showing solidarity with the person on whose behalf the prayer is offered.
Each time we light a candle, we are called to remember that it is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who is the True Light and that He and only He will grant us True Life. Christ said, “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) Jesus Christ IS that light. He is the light that shines for us in the midst this world of darkness. And anyone who follows Him need not fear that darkness because we know that Christ will always shine for us, leading us in the Way to the Father.
Every candle that we light should also be a time of prayer in which we reflect upon the salvation that the Lord has worked for us and also a time of recommitment, where we renew our Baptismal vows and that we, as children of God, are called to “Let our light so shine before all people, that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)
In lighting our candles, the first thing we do is to make an offering for the candle. Everything that we have is from God and the first step is to give back to Him for all of His many blessings. The next step is to venerate the icons, if any, that surround the devotional space, that help us lift our prayers to God on high. Next, we light the candle, remembering all of our loved ones who are sick or who have passed into the next life, or who we just want to pray for, and beseech God to have mercy on them.
Lastly, we quietly say “Lord have mercy,” for our own selves, repenting for our own sins while at the same time “re-igniting” our own flame and recommitting our whole life to God. Thus we begin again to live as light, helping others see the Way in a world of darkness. In the lighting of candles we remember and truly live the words of Our Lord: "I am the Light of the World."