Lights of Faith: Candles Keep Vigil, Become Votive Offerings

The faithful illuminate vigil lights and votive candles for any number of reasons

Lighting votive candles and vigil lights is a strong tradition in the Church that began at least 1,800 years ago, when lights were burned in the catacombs at the tomb of martyrs as a sign of unity with them. The lights kept “vigil”; hence they were named “vigil lights.”

Mike Scarpelli regularly lights a five-day or seven-day votive candle by the Sacred Heart statue and before the statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. He remembers as a child watching his grandmother and mother “light votive candles and say prayers, always at the statue of Mary. “I learned it was a special way to pray, in that case to Mary, and also to ask for her intervention to God to hear and answer our prayers.” 

Fr. Michael Carroll says he also uses candlelight to recall his loved ones in prayer.  “Every time I go into a new church, I light a candle for my parents; it’s my custom and a way of remembering them and acknowledging them.” He points out that candles have long been recognized with prayer. Whenever the faithful light a candle and say a prayer before or after lighting it, he said, they are “turning that lit candle into a continuation of our prayer …. The light staying there as the candle is burning, will continue to maintain your prayer to God.” As long as that candle is lit it, too, keeps a vigil.

The word ‘vigil’ comes from the Latin vigilia and means ‘to keep watch.’ How is this done with light?” Father Chris Alar explains, “The vigil candle we light for a period of time symbolizes how we as persons wish to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we might leave the church and go to our own homes.”  Because the lit candle maintains that prayer, it is also called a votive candle. The word “votive” comes from the Latin votum, meaning a “promise or a prayer,” indicating that “a candle which we call a votive candle really represents our prayer before God,” Fr. Alar said. “When we light a candle, we’re basically giving a prayer intention. It’s a physical sign of a spiritual prayer.”  He explained. “My prayer is in my heart, but how do I show this internal prayer? The votive candle is the way we can express in a physical, tangible way our inward prayer. Our prayer is symbolized by the candle.”  Fr. Alar explains that, “By lighting the candle our prayer is physically represented, and we join our prayers to the light of Christ allowing that light to burn on and on in our souls, even when we have left the church.”

Fr. Carroll says that the faithful light vigil lights and votive candles for any number of reasons.  They may tell a person, “I will light a candle for you. That’s an expression of ‘I will say a prayer for you.’”  He’s even found that when the faithful tell loved ones who’ve grown cold in their faith that they’ve lit a votive candle for their intention; those loved ones “find consolation and peace in it.”  Father Alar says that, “When I light a candle before a sacred image, it shows my devotion to them, asking for their help.”  The faithful will also light a vigil candle expressing thanksgiving for a favor granted. Scarpelli connects lighting the candles also to different events in life, “like illness in family, or a death, or happier occasions.” 

As director of the Association of Marian Helpers, Father Alar said he has seen lots of answered prayers reported by the people who have lit candles with great devotion. “One case was a cure of cancer. One was a pregnancy for a woman who was told she could not have children.” He hears of these answered prayers on “a regular basis.” The many candles burning in the votive light racks in shrines and parish churches have another uplifting message.  As Father Carroll explained, “You’re not in the church alone; you’re there with the prayers of others. We know we are never alone in our prayer, and the candles around us remind us of it.  In the Tradition of the Church, the candle is a sign of Christ’s presence. Father Alar agrees saying that “The presence of God is shown by light,” explaining that in Scripture, God is symbolized by light, and both the Old Testament and Jewish tradition are full of references to candlelight.  Light shows God’s presence in Exodus (27:20-21) and Leviticus (24:2-4).

The Jews always had candles lit in the temple and synagogue. The Talmud instructs a lit lamp to be at the Ark of the Covenant because the Ark held the Torah, which is God’s presence in his written word. Father Alar said, “This is like what we do with the Blessed Sacrament today, we look for the lit candle. It shows the presence of God in the tabernacle in the Eucharist, which is the presence of the real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our God, Jesus Christ.”

We also see this in the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil, when the priest says, “Christ, our light.” Our individual candles are lit from that Pascal candle, which “symbolizes our light being united with the light of Christ.”  Father Alar quoted Scripture to recall how Jesus revealed, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus made clear, “I have come as light into the world” (John 12:46). Christ’s words largely inform the tradition of candlelight as a symbol for the Savior of the world.  With this in mind, in the Middle Ages, a candle’s beeswax symbolized the purity of Jesus, its wick the human soul of Christ, and its light his divinity.  Father Alar associated this enlightenment to our lighting candles. “This is very powerful, not the candle in and of itself. It’s what is symbolizes: the light of Christ.”

Father Alar concluded, “The beauty of the votive candle is that the light signifies our prayer offered, united in faith going to the light of God. So with the light of faith, we basically ask Our Lord or a saint in prayer to help us. We ask the light be given to the Light, which is God.”

By Joseph Pronechen