Question: Why do Catholics employ candles in their worship? (M.B., Connecticut)
Answer: An obvious answer, of course, is "to provide light." In the early Church, Catholics often worshipped in the underground catacombs or burial vaults where they were protected from persecution by Roman law. Even when the Church emerged "above ground" in the fourth century, architectural standards were such that the interiors of most large buildings were fairly dark. Extensive use of glass windows came only in the middle ages. With modern lighting, candles are retained as a symbolic link with earlier ages.
The use of candles also expresses a certain degree of festivity. They give a cheery glow unmatched by electric light. At Mass, at least two beeswax candles are required on the altar. Four or six are used on festive occasions and for high Mass. A seventh is permitted in pontifical Masses. Four candles are employed at the low Mass of a bishop. An additional candle may be lit near the altar from the Sanctus to the Communion to indicate that the canon of the Mass is in progress. Additional candles are employed when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for veneration. At solemn functions the acolytes carry candles when not otherwise occupied. Acolytes receive an unlighted candle (and an empty cruet) in the ceremony of their ordination.
Votive candles are burned before the Blessed Sacrament or images of our Lord and the saints by the faithful. The burning candle is a sort of sacrificial gift, left to consume itself, and to serve as a reminder of the donor's prayerful intentions. They are usually enclosed in colored glasses, adding to the festive aspect of their use.
The Paschal candle is symbolic of the risen Christ, and religious writers have suggested involved explanations of the symbolism. The wax made by virgin bees is said to represent the flesh of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. The combination of the wick and the wax is seen as a symbol of the hypostatic union of our Lord's humanity and divinity. The flame is suggestive of our Lord's divinity, and reminds us of His presence among the Israelites in a pillar of flame.
Although the sanctuary lamp properly burns olive oil, a large candle is often employed as a more practical alternative. Together with the tabernacle veil, it is indicative of the Presence of our Lord in the tabernacle.