December Message to Priests and Deacons of the Diocese, as Master of Ceremonies
As we reach the darkest days of the year with the longest nights, we are no doubt grateful for electricity and the many advantages it brings over burning midnight oil. I remember the few times as I was growing up that the power went out in Elk Point, back before everyone had flashlights on their cell phones. It could be a hassle, to say the least, especially if it happened during the night or early morning, resetting whatever alarm you had been counting on to wake you up. For most of us who grew up with street lights in town, it can be difficult even to imagine the sort of blackness and complete absence of light that used to be part of everyone’s regular experience. Even just one flame of a small candle gives off an impressive amount of light when it’s the only source.
The light of candles has long played a prominent role in the celebration of the Christian liturgy and devotional life. During this season we have the Advent wreath that many families still light in their own homes. One of the most disappointing things in visiting churches in Rome was to see so many devotional candle stands replaced with electronic lights made to resemble candles, activated by dropping a coin in or by pressing a switch. Bad idea. Much of the appeal of lighting devotional candles just comes from the opportunity to handle an actual flame, at least that was always the case for me. The Exultet of the Easter Vigil is one the greatest compositions in the Church’s liturgy, sung in praise of the Paschal candle, which of course represents Christ Himself and hearkens back to the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea and through the desert.
A few practical reminders: even when we have sufficient light from other sources, at least two wax candles near the altar are required, in normal circumstances, in the celebration of the Mass. Up to four or six can be used to show greater solemnity, seven if the bishop is the celebrant. At least four candles should be used when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed inside the monstrance. The amount of beeswax used in the composition of candles is no longer specified. “It should be noted that while an oil lamp may be used to indicate the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (see GIRM, no. 316), the U.S. bishops have never given permission for the use of oil lamps at the altar,” even when these have been made to resemble wax candles (April 2018 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship).
St. Anselm of Canterbury explained some of the symbolism of candles. The wax represents Christ’s pure Flesh, received from His Immaculate Mother. The wick stands for His human soul. The flame is His divinity. So as we see the candles of the altar consumed and growing shorter over time, we should be mindful of the sacrifice of Christ made present at every Mass, Christ consumed completely out of love for us and in obedience to the Father. God grant that we, too, might be wholly consumed by His divine Love—as we approach Christmas—and become light to those around us in a darkened world.