Origin of the Blessing of Candles

February 04, 2024
Source: Priory Orlando

The life of St. Theodosius by Cyrillos of Scythopolis is the earliest document about the use of burning candles at the procession in Jerusalem (about 456). The homily of St. Eloi (d. 665) records the use of burning candles in Rome at the feast of the Purification. The procession, just as all the litanies coming down from the first Christian centuries, aimed to implore divine help in physical and spiritual needs and to secure protection from the evil of body and soul. Now the blessing and its orations are the expression, crystallization, and condensation of this idea in the form of a sacramental to secure ends and effects.

The dependence of the blessing of candles upon the blessing of the Easter candle becomes evident from a study of the development and structure of the various formulæ of the blessing. The oldest formulæ has only one oration with the general intention: "ut has candelas ad usus hominum et ad sanitatem corporum et animarum sive in terra sive in aquis . . . benedicere et sanctificare digneris”. This one oration and its general intention with one blessing is later specified and resolved into a series of orations. The one blessing is resolved into two: some formulæ (of French origin) have added a blessing of the fire at which the candles were afterward lighted; some formulæ (of German origin) have added a special blessing of light (i.e.. a blessing of the light of the first candle lighted, from which the rest of the candles received their lights). Both blessings have their parallels in the blessing of the Easter candle.

Structure of The Blessing

Of the five orations, only four contain a blessing. The fifth oration implores the light of the Holy Spirit for us that illuminated by it we may recognize Christ whose epiphany in the Temple we remember, just as Simeon in the light of the Holy Spirit recognized Christ.

The four orations that ask for the blessing of the candles vary in the Divine Person which is addressed, and also in the events commemorated and persons referred to.

The first oration is directed to the First Divine Person (Domine sanete, Pater omnipotens, æterne Deus); Simeon is commemorated (qui hodierna die petitionem justi Simeonis implesti); the intercession of Our Lady is asked for (per intercessionem beatæ Mariæ semper Virginis, cuius hodie festa devote celebrantur).

The second oration is again directed to the Heavenly Father with a reference to the presentation (qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum ulnis sancti Simeonis in templo sancto tuo suscipiendum præsentasti).

The third oration is addressed to Christ.

The fourth oration addresses God who gave Moses the order for the sacrifice of light in the Temple (type of the candles). None of the orations is addressed to the Holy Ghost. Four orations, however (including the fifth), ask for the light of the Holy Ghost: "sancto igne dulcissime caritatis tuæ succensi" (oration 2); "ita corda nostra invisibili igne, i.e., sancti Spiritus splendore illustrate" (oration 3); "lumen Spiritus tui nostris non desit mentibus" (oration 4); "Spiritus Sancti gratia illuminati atque edocti" (oration 5).

Light is the symbol of heavenly blessing (oration 2: "lumine supernæ benedictionis accendere digneris"); of charity ("sancto igne dulcissimæ caritatis tuæ succensi"); of Christ ("Domine Jesu Christe, lux vera, quæ illuminas omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum"); of grace ("sanctifica eos cereos lumine gratiæ tuæ"); of the Holy Spirit ("corda nostra invisibili igne, ie., Sancti Spiritus splendore illustrate"); of the light of glory ("ad lucem indeficientem pervenire mereamur").

The distribution of the lighted candles is conceived in analogy to Holy Communion, the procession reminds us of the prudent virgins expecting the advent of the bridegroom, and the entering of the church recalls the entering of heaven.

Dignity, and Effects of The Blessed Candle

The candles blessed on the Feast of the Presentation were in the highest esteem during the Middle Ages. The contents of the Orations explain and express the profound faith of Christians in the efficacy and effect of this sacramental. Great care was taken that every family and every home would have its blessed candle. In thunderstorms, in public calamities, against contagion, for mothers in travail, in the hour of death, the candle was lighted and ardent belief was felt in its help "for the health of body and soul upon the land and on the sea." In the monastery of St. Blase in the black forest a large candle was blessed for the use of the monastery. It had to burn from the time of its blessing until after Mass of the following day. During thunderstorms, it was carried in procession throughout the monastery. It was kindled in the room of sick brethren and had to burn during their last hours. It was called "candela claustralis." Many miracles are related through the use of the lighted candle, some of them in analogy to the miracles worked through the use of an "Agnus Dei," made from the wax of the Easter candle.

The dignity, efficacy, and effect of a sacramental depend on the intention of the Church expressed in the terms of the prayers and the solemnity of the rite. The blessed candle has certainly the highest rank among the sacramentals of Christmastide. Among the many brilliant sacramentals of Christmas and Epiphany are included the blessing of water, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, of precious stones; then the many blessings with holy water and incensation of the homes on Holy Night and throughout the twelve nights from Christmas to the Epiphany. The one very charming rite of the blessing of candles was selected and inserted in the Roman Missal to represent them all as the specific sacramental of Christmastide.

The effects mentioned in the five prayers of the blessing are general and specific, negative and positive. The first Oration terms it: "ad usus hominum et sanitatem corporum et animarum, sive in terra, sive in aquis." The second Oration asks for the infusion of charity and heavenly glory. The third Oration implores negative and positive effects: to expel darkness from hearts and minds, to purify the hearts from all blindness of vices, to purify the eye of the mind that we may know what is pleasing to God and useful for our salvation; that it may lead us out from the darkness of this world to eternal light. The fourth Oration petitions the internal illumination of our minds by the light of the Holy Spirit. The fifth Oration asks for the light of the Holy Spirit that we may recognize the Saviour and faithfully love Him: "...ut eiusdem Spiritus Sancti gratia illuminati atque edocti, te veraciter agnoscamus, et fideliter diligamus."

Holy Mother Church presents the faithful at the end of Christmastime with the lighted candle as with a souvenir, with a Christmas gift of value that will last the entire year until the next Christmas. A gift which is light from Christmas night, a spark from the star of Bethlehem to show the faithful the right way, to lead them to Christ, that they may remember and enjoy in its rays the beauty and grace of the Child of Bethlehem.