PrayerTheology & Spirituality

What is it About Candles?

What is it about candles? There is no practical reason for them to exist in the developed world in the 21st century, much less for them to be as readily available as milk and dish soap. In the developed world, electric light has been available for 100 years, and we have brighter, more convenient, and more reliable sources of light. Candlelight is feeble compared even to the single bulb on the back of my cell phone. 

And yet, there is something about candles. There is a reason we use candles instead of flashlights to mark the major moments that punctuate our ordinary lives. We wait in the dark for someone to appear in the doorway with a candlelit cake after a birthday dinner. We pass fire candle to candle before singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. We light them in memory of those who have died and use them to keep vigil after a tragedy. 

When I was growing up, my family would keep two taper candles in cut glass candle holders on our dinner table. They looked incongruous on our stained tabletop with the paper napkins and mismatched dinner plates, but they made the evening meal feel special. There is something about candles that not only marks moments as special but makes them special. Dinner by candlelight is more than the same meal under a halogen bulb. Worship in a candlelit sanctuary has a different feel about it than the same service held in a classroom or warehouse. 

Maybe there is something deep in our animal brain that remembers that most of our 300,000-year history has been a war against the night. Most of human existence has been ruled by the need to hunt, fish, plant, and reap while the sun shines, and night to retreat; a feeble flame the best defense we could hope for against the enemies that stalk us in the darkness—beast, villain, cold, or pestilence. 

But even this can’t fully explain the appeal of the humble candle. The human brain, after all, is made to adapt. Thanks to air conditioning, medicine, and artificial light, the natural world isn’t the threat it once was. If we love candles because our ancestors needed fire, why don’t we love rocks because our ancestors needed spears?

The evolutionary hypothesis doesn’t explain the joy, sense of peace, feeling of cheer, and bone-deep comfort that are evoked by the simplest smiling jack-o-lantern or birthday cake. The human love of the candle comes not from what they avoid, but from what they offer. And this, I think is the key. 

There is something in the human soul that knows that we are, for all our modern conveniences and scientific progress, still engaged in a war against the night. Here in North America is perhaps more obvious than ever. Never before have people had such material comfort, and never before have so many people with all their material needs met felt so lonely, isolated, and depressed. The night we fear is not the one outside our walls, but the one outside our hearts. 

Ralph Ellison wrote: “The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived.” Christians call this chaos—this darkness—sin and death, those powers which seek perpetually to draw God’s creatures away from His light, and out into the shadows of death and chaos. 

Scripture is shot through with light at every turn. Our God is the one who created the stars (Genesis 1:14), whose word is a lantern to our feet (Psalm 119:105), who leads his people in a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21), the dawn from on high that visits us (Luke 1:78), and the Light in whom there is no darkness at all (1John 1:5). Sometimes the presence of God is as a dazzling light, which the eyes cannot bear to behold. And sometimes He is as the light that shines in the darkness. One bright spot, when darkness is all around: the pattern against chaos. 

And this is something that the Christian heart should never let go of. We know that in the end, when God is all in all, we will have no need for sun, much less for candles, because God himself will be our light (Revelation 22:5). But for now, we walk in darkness. Because while Christ has ultimately defeated the powers of sin and death, we have not yet realized the promise of unending day. So we hold on to that hope, and we light our candles.

Candles seem outmoded in the age of instant light, until you flip the switch and nothing happens. Those moments, alone in the dark, are the moments that we recognize our finitude and the futility of thinking that we have once and for all mastered the darkness. When the chips are down, beeswax and cotton—made not by us, but by other creatures of God—are what we need to carry on in the dark. 

But we also light them during the times that the world around us seems bathed in light, when everything seems to be going our way. We mark the moments of joy with candles, and we light them in moments of pain. For Christians know that darkness was here yesterday, and will be here tomorrow. These flickering flames are more than the sum of their parts. They can’t illuminate every dark corner, but they also are not threatened by deepening gloom. Those of us who walk in darkness have this small reminder of the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness comprehends not. 

Barbara White

Barbara White

Barbara is an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Rector for Worship and Formation at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to entering ministry, Barbara worked in public policy and corporate communications. Her interests include Christian metaphysics, the King James Bible, eschatology, and third-wave coffee. Barbara and her husband Joshua live in Louisville with two impious felines.

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