You may have noticed that we have statues: Christ the King and Mary, as well as Saint Agnes, our Patroness and Saint Vincent the Deacon (both of whom died in 304) (It is unclear how Saint Vincent made his way here, but we welcome him nonetheless!) In front of all of them, we have votive candles. Why votive candles? Indeed, why statues? What is their meaning? Are they a helpful tradition? Are we, rather, engaging in a superstitious practice?
Let us consider what preceded and prepared our practice. In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple (and in the synagogues) primarily to show the presence of God (cf. Exodus 27: 20-21 and Leviticus 24: 2-4). Later the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other sacred writings were kept, to show reverence—a practice that probably influenced ours of having a lit candle to indicate the presence of Christ in Communion reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is evidence that lit candles (or oil lamps) were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s, and before sacred images and relics by the 300s. St. Jerome (d. 420), in his Contra Vigilantium, attested to this practice. And, the practice continued to develop.
Although a natural symbol, light has a special significance for us: Christ, “the true light” (John 1:9). Some Medieval spiritual writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: beeswax symbolized the purity of Christ; the wick, the human soul of Christ; and the light, His divinity. Recall Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark” (John 12:46).
Here, as in the early Church, as a gesture of honor, we light a candle before a statue of our Lord or of a saint. i.e., those whom our Lord has fully “conformed into his image” (cf. Romans 8:29). Of course, we do not honor the statue (or any image). We are not engaging in superstitious practice. It all depends on intention. These are but stepping stones in prayer. We make use of a visual representation and reminder to turn to Him Whom we worship without seeing. As far as Mary and the saints are concerned, we do not worship them; we venerate them because of what Jesus has done in them and because we believe them to be present by virtue of Jesus.
The light signifies that prayer is a “coming into” the light of Christ. And what is wonderful about a candle is that it continues to burn when we are gone, expressing our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.
You are welcome to light a votive candle...
Yours in the light of Christ,,
(Thanks to a July 1994 issue of “The Arlington Catholic Herald” for inspiration for this reflection.)