I was sitting in a small church (part of the parish cluster I serve in) reflecting on a number of things, when my attention was drawn to a small bank of vigil lights beneath a statute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I watched as the flames danced and flickered in the coloured glass holders -reds, greens, blues, and amber; I thought of how soft and comforting those coloured flames looked. That image stayed with me throughout the rest of that day. Late that afternoon, as I was driving from the city out in the country, I thought about those candles and what they represented. I thought of all the people who, in their devotion and with prayer, lit each one of those little vigil lights. Was God pleased with those candles? Did lighting them really do any good?
Roman Catholic worship and devotion is so filled with signs and symbols; the liturgy is replete with things that each of our humans senses respond to; colours and light to sight, music and bells to sound; even incense for smell. There are tactile things – the embrace or handshake at the ‘sign of peace’; even physical taste at reception of Holy Communion (particularly under both species).
Candles are one of those visual symbols that our eyes respond to (and subsequently, hopefully, our hearts). The large paschal candle obviously symbolizes the light of Christ, which we are reminded of during the Easter vigil when the chant ‘Christ our Light’ is intoned as the lit candle is processed into the church – or during a baptism, when the baptismal candle is lit from the paschal candle and given with the words, ‘Receive the light of Christ’. The connection to Christ in these actions is very apparent.
But the small vigil lights. I thought how each person who lit one of these, offered a prayer when lighting them. Prayers were offered for themselves, for loved ones; perhaps for the gift of healing for one, or a return to the faith for another. Maybe someone offered a prayer of thanksgiving for blessings received from God and then left the small candle glowing as a reminder of the favour they had been granted by God. It didn’t matter whether in praise, supplication, intercession or thanksgiving, each candle had been lit and served as a symbol of a prayer – of communication – to God. This is a God who loves and cherishes each human being. This is a God who wants nothing more than to be reunited with each and every child He created. This is a God who is constantly calling and speaking to His children everywhere and in everything, if only they would listen. This is a God who entered into our very humanity in the person of Jesus; He entered into our world and became one like us – into our world full of sensory experience and symbolism.
Each of those candles left burning represents, at least on some level I would hope, the intention of a brief dialogue with God; do I believe that the candles themselves somehow mysteriously have some magical, miraculous power? No, I don’t. Do I believe that what they represent, the gesture of children reaching out to a loving Father in trust, is somehow pleasing to God?
Absolutely I do.
If our God entered into our human experience, and is the author of all things – physical or spiritual; actual or symbolic – then He alone would be able to judge the heart and the intent of the one lighting those simple little wicks.
What a world it would be if, instead of shouting at and insulting each other, denigrating or belittling each other, hurting or manipulating each other – we simply went into a church, and lit a candle, and offered a prayer or thought for each other?
Light one for me, and I’ll light one for you.