Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Wax Candle in the Liturgy

by Fr. John Bolen

Descriptive Title

The Wax Candle in the Liturgy


Fr. John Bolen gives the history of the liturgical use of candles, noting in particular the significance of candles made from beeswax.

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review for the Catholic University of America, May 1942

In the history of religion, light and fire have frequently accompanied the sacred rites of many peoples. The fire of the altar and the lights of the sacrificial chamber have not only been used symbolically, but at times these elements have assumed the halo of divinity itself. Among the Hebrews, God Himself enjoined the use of light in His worship. In the tabernacle was to be placed the candlestick with seven branches, holding seven lamps (Exodus, xxv; 31-37). While some lamps were illuminated by means of burning resinous wood, these no doubt were fed with olive oil.1 To the Jews, candles were probably unknown, especially in the temple ritual. While the word frequently occurs in the Revised Version, yet the Hebrew word "ner" should be rendered "lamp" instead of "candle".2 Even the word "candlestick" is misleading as found in the Rheims-Douay translation of the Vulgate "candelabrum". Among the Romans, this term usually signified a lampstand.3

Historians seem to be agreed that there was no ceremonial use of lighted candles, torches or lamps during the first three centuries.4 Lamps were used by the Romans in their sacrificial ritual, and the first Christians were careful to avoid anything that might resemble this form of worship. The change in attitude was slow, but natural. Since services were usually held in the evening or early in the morning, light of some sort was a necessity. This was especially true when Mass was offered in the dark chambers of the catacombs. It was but a step for the Christians of later centuries, accustomed to the use of lights about the altar and in the sanctuary, to retain lamps and candles, since the worshippers were not unaware of their beauty and symbolism.

It is difficult to state the exact time in which candles were first used liturgically. References are found in documents from the fourth century onwards, but it is not clear when the church as a whole accepted them as permanent adjuncts to the ritual. Abbot (now Cardinal) Schuster, in his monumental treatise on the history of the prayers of the Mass of the Roman Rite, devotes a lengthy chapter to the "Eucharistia Lucernaris", which originated in Jerusalem5 in the 4th century, and included the rite of offering a lighted lamp or candle, in honor of Him who was the true Light. From Jerusalem, the service spread westward, through Spain, Gaul, northern Italy and finally to Rome. From this ceremony came the use of the Pascal Candle and Vespers, in which incense is now offered in a similar way, at the chanting of the Magnificat. The Laus cerei is mentioned by St. Jerome about the year 378, and he himself composed a hymn, in which he includes the symbolism of the bees and the wax. Later Ennodius of Pavia (d. 521) composed two hymns in like vein, in which he speaks of the chastity of the working bee as typical of the virgin birth of the Saviour, and of the lighted candle being offered and consecrated to God. While the idea of the virginity of the bee has been relegated to the shades of mythology, yet it had a deep influence at the time, of making sacred the use of the wax candle in ecclesiastical services. The Ordo Romanus of the 7th century gives us a description of a Pontifical Mass, in which we find that the bishop was preceded by seven acolytes carrying seven lighted wax candles, probably a remnant of the custom of having seven lights carried before high Roman dignitaries. Later in the Mass, two of these candles were carried in procession before the book of the Gospels. They were then placed behind the altar and extinguished, in company with the other five. It was but a logical move to have these candles remain lighted during the entire Mass and in due course, they were placed on the altar instead of behind and around it. This, in brief, is the historical background of the wax candle found on every Catholic altar today.

The blessing of candles was an inevitable sequence to their use in processions and in the sanctuary. While the Pascal Candle is known to liturgical annalists as early as the fifth century, the first reference to its blessing is in the writings of Pope Gregory the Great, about 605. Today we often associate the blessing of candles and Candlemas. Historically, this rite of blessing wax candles has a devious lineage, and it came about in this way. The Romans, both pagan and Christian, were fond of processions and they occurred frequently. As most of them were held about dawn, it was necessary for the marchers to carry torches. Candles, made of wax, were later substituted. One of these processions was introduced from the East, probably by Pope Sergius I (A. D. 687), who was by birth a Syrian from Antioch. It was held on the feast of St. Simeon, 2 February, and was afterwards called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, although the prayers of the Mass of the day point to an original feast of our Lord. The Venerable Bede, about A. D. 730, describes this Roman procession. The candles were not blessed, but simply carried by the clergy and the faithful. Later, the Pope gave a blessing to the candles before they were lighted. Today, the idea of the procession has almost completely disappeared in services held in parish churches, and the secondary rite, that of blessing the candles, alone survives. It was this feast, with its hymns and prayers of blessing, that preserved the symbolism of the wax candle in the minds of the faithful, attuned in the Middle Ages to the mystical rather than the historical.

When the storm clouds of the Reformation settled over the face of Europe, the dark shadows seemingly did not need the light of wax candles, for they quickly disappeared from the rebelling churches, except those in the Lutheran communion, which remained closest to Roman teachings. Even in England, where one is sometimes led to believe by Anglican writers today, that the Mass and its visible forms were never forgotten, the candle accompanied the altar into the closet. It was one hundred and fifty years before the waxen taper was restored. In the Catholic Church, the candle remained, symbolic of light and grace and beauty. Then as now, it adorned the altar of sacrifice; it was dipped into the baptismal font; it watched as the opening doors of the Tabernacle revealed the Real Presence of the Light of the world; it passed from the hands of the newly ordained to that of the bishop; its light flickered in the dimness of the sick room while the priestly physician performed his work. At the hour of prayer, in monastery and cathedral, it was a symbol of Ecclesia Orans. The candle is not a merely tolerated adornment of the liturgy; custom has invested it with a permanent role.

The laws of the church, now in effect, about the wax candle become intelligible and sacred when the pages of 1600 years of its history and development have been turned. Ours is an intelligent service to God, and we appreciate more fully our heritage when we know the reason for the law. In recent times, the candle industry has seen a revolution, and the wax candle is giving place rapidly to less expensive tapers. Naturally, the ministers of the church recognize the trend of the age. The pocketbook plays a rather important role in our service to God, and it speaks as distinctly from the pulpit, as the lighted candle shines from the altar. Enormous debts, parochial school overhead, etc., tend to make the priest of God forget the labors of the little bee amid the roses and in the hive, the writings of medieval poets and mystics, of the meanings of the liturgical prayers and blessings on Easter Eve and Candlemas. In the end, he is satisfied that animal and mineral oils and fats should burn on the altars of the 20th century. Patiently, old Mother Church reminds us, and then warns us, that it is not wise to fall so easily. Before, however, stating her wishes in laws and regulations, it might do no harm to consider how modern candles are made.

The candle may be composed of one or more of many materials, such as tallow, the solid portion of palm and cocoanut oils, bleached wax, spermaceti, paraffin and other oily substances found in coal, shale and gas tar.6 Most modern candles are made of paraffin wax or stearine, or mixtures of both. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the "crude paraffin wax from mineral oil refineries is 'sweated' in ovens at a temperature slightly below the required melting point to free it from lower melting waxes and traces of oil, and is afterwards purified by steaming with animal charcoal and fuller's earth. As pure paraffin wax becomes plastic at temperatures considerably below its melting point, candles made from it are apt to bend, and it is usually stiffened with 5 to 10 % of stearine, which also makes the wax less transparent. Candles made from this mixture are known as 'composite candles.' The proportion of stearine is increased in candles, intended for hot climates, and they may be made entirely of stearine. Stearine is made of fatty acids combined with glycerin. The latter must be removed for it gives rise to acrid vapors. The solid fats, tallow, palm oil and bone fat are processed by any of several methods, treated with acid and bleached." Pure stearine, or stearic acid, presents difficulties in its making into candles, as it contracts upon cooling and leaves small spaces between the crystals. It must be united to or mixed with wax or paraffin before it is poured into the molds. The sperm candles, made of spermaceti, a white crystalline wax obtained from the head cavity of the sperm whale, came into use in the latter half of the 18th century. A candle of this material, weighing one sixth of a pound and burning 120 grains per hour was adopted by the London Metropolic Gas Act of 1860 as the standard candle in photometry. It is extremely brittle and must be mixed with small proportions of other materials, especially beeswax. The oldest material used in the making of candles is, of course, beeswax. It was known to the Romans, and for many centuries was the only material used in the candles prescribed for ceremonial use in the Catholic Church.

In the making of the candle, the wick, usually formed of soft, twisted cotton string, must be carefully proportioned to the amount of fat or wax used. If the wick is too narrow, the light will be dim and the flame too small to melt the wax fast enough. If the wick is too large, the supply of fat will be insufficient to form and preserve a bright flame.

Most candles are molded, and they are formed by pouring the melted mixtures into frames, in which wicks have been stretched and properly attached. Upon cooling, the wicks are cut from their moorings, and the molds slightly heated to permit the removal of the candles. Hundreds can be made at one time, depending upon the size of the machine. Wax candles cannot be molded, due to the sticking properties of the material but are usually processed by dipping. The wick is suspended in liquid wax, and as it is removed, some of the material sticks to it. Permitted to harden, the wax-incrusted wick is dipped again and again until the desired thickness has been obtained. Larger candles are commonly made by rolling wax sheets around the wicks, and the succeeding layers of wax. Both methods require careful manual rolling with flat slabs of wood to produce uniform shapes. Thus, both in material and in the process of making, the wax candle of the Catholic Church sanctuary differs from the less expensive candle used on the dining room table. Produced by a living bee, the wax seems to carry with it the idea of life, and typifies the spiritual more realistically than candles molded from oil extracted from the bosom of the earth.

It is undoubtedly the mind of the church that the candle be made of wax. The Missale Romanum, listing the things required for the celebration of Mass, plainly orders luminaria cerea.7 Van der Stappen lays down the general principle that no other material should be used.8 However, he notes that in our day it is increasingly difficult to obtain candles unmixed with other substances, and accordingly several bishops at the turn of the century asked the Holy See to recognize this situation and advise. The Sacred Congregation of Rites answered that it would no longer require candles made entirely of wax, but the Pascal Candle, the candles used in the blessing of baptismal water, and the two candles needed for the celebration of Mass, must be made of wax, at least in maxima parte; all other candles used on the altar must contain a "greater or notable part of wax". Pastors and rectors of churches should follow the norms approved by their respective Ordinaries.9 In view of this decree, Van der Stappen says that he and others hold that for the Pascal Candle and for the candles necessary for the celebration of Mass, it is sufficient that 75 % wax be used; for all other candles used on the altar, for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the public recitation of the Office, etc., it suffices that the candles used contain about 50 % beeswax. Fortesque has this to say: "The proportion of beeswax in church candles is regulated by law. The Pascal candle, the two candles for low Mass, six for High Mass, and the twelve necessary for Benediction must have at least 65 % of real beeswax. All other candles used on the altar must have at least 25 % of real beeswax. So the Bishops of England, and Wales on 4 December, 1906. The Bishops of Ireland, in October 1905, directed that the Pascal Candle, and the two principal candles on the altar at Mass should contain at least 65 % beeswax and that all other candles used on the altar should contain at least 25 % of beeswax."10 Augustine states: "The general rule is that all candles used at liturgical functions should be made of pure beeswax. Therefore, candles made of stearine (animal fat), or of paraffin (hydrocarbon or brown coal), or of tallow are not permitted for liturgical use (S.R.C. No. 3063)". Commenting on the decree of 1904, he says: "This would spell, perhaps in percentages: 67-75 % of beeswax for the first class (maxima parte) and at least 51 % for the other candles".11 Looking through other standard works on liturgy and rubrics, we find that these opinions are the ones commonly accepted. Since we are not at liberty to follow in this country the special rules promulgated by the local Ordinaries of England, Wales and Ireland, we must obey the statutes of our own local dioceses, when and where the Ordinary has seen fit to legislate in this matter. Otherwise, we should be guided by the opinions of prudent liturgists. It is safe to conclude that the Pascal Candle and the candles used at Mass must have at least two thirds wax in their composition. 67 yo would be the minimum. About the other candles, the Sacred Congregation of Rites prescribes that a greater ( 51 %) or notable part of the candles must be wax. 25 % seems rather low. 40 % looks better. In any case, a little wax put in the candle by the manufacturer to bind the basic matter together or make it workable would not suffice. The priest should buy those candles only which have the percentage of wax used clearly stamped on the individual candle. To resolve all doubts, the Holy See leaves the final word to the local Bishop.

The candles used in the sanctuary should be bleached, but at Masses for the Dead, the Ferial and Sunday Masses of Advent and Lent, Tenebrae and at the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified they should be unbleached. All candles should be blessed, although this is not of strict obligation. This may be done either at Candlemas (strictly, only the candles used on this occasion are then blessed) or at any time with the formula found in the Rituale Romanum. The number of candles to be used at the various services is regulated by church law; six at a Solemn Mass; four or six at a Sung Mass; two at Low Mass; twelve at Benediction; twenty at Exposition; six at Private Exposition with the Ciborium. More candles may be used on special occasions.12 In the use of candles, the priest is always certain to show good taste and judgment when he follows the letter of the law; just as he will show honor to God when he follows the spirit of the law.


1 Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I, p. 249.

2 Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, 'Lamp'.

3 Funk and Wagnalls, New Standard Dictionary.

4 Smith-Cheetham, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, Vol. II, p. 993.

5 Schuster, The Sacramentary, Vol. II, p. 245.

6 International Encyclopedia.

7 Missale Romanum, "De defectibus", Title X, No. 1.

8 Sacra Liturgia, Vol. III, Q. 59.

9 S.R.C., 14 Dec. 1904, No. 4148.

10 Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Explained, p. 8.

11 Liturgical Law, p. 37.

12 Ryan, Candles in the Roman Rite, pp. 15-23.

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