The history and traditions of using lights in worship are long and varied. The early church most likely used oil lamps, and these began to be replaced by candles in the fourth century. In addition to the symbolic use of light, the use of lamps and candles had the practical purpose of providing light in the area of worship.
On either side of the altar, our sanctuary has two candelabras, each with seven candles, sometimes referred to as “office lights.” These are generally lit during every worship service. In Scripture, seven represents the number of completeness. In seven days God created the world (counting the seventh day of rest). The first chapter in Revelation refers to the sevenfold Spirit, to seven stars, and to the seven churches in Asia to which the revelation is addressed, represented by seven golden lampstands. The Bible contains many other symbolic uses of the number seven, particularly in Daniel and Revelation.
On the altar are two candles, which are called “Eucharistic lights.” These candles are generally only lit during worship services in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
The large white candle is the Paschal Candle, also sometimes called the Christ Candle. The term “Paschal” originates from the Greek and Hebrew for “Passover.” The Passover has its beginnings in Exodus 12 when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Israelites were instructed to sacrifice an unblemished male lamb. Blood from the lamb was to be placed on their doorposts, and for those who followed these instructions, the tenth and final plague striking down all the firstborns would pass over their home and they would be spared. The lamb was also to be roasted and, along with unleavened bread, provided their final meal before leaving Egypt. As a reminder of this, the Israelites annually celebrated the Passover. After the resurrection of Jesus, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.” The Paschal Candle is normally used during the Easter season (through Pentecost), and is also lit for special occasions such as baptisms and funerals. The light of the Paschal Candle specifically celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and reminds us of Christ’s continued presence.
The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, and also marks the beginning of the Church Year. The word “advent” comes from the Latin meaning “coming” or “arrival.” A specifically Lutheran tradition (which many other churches have adopted) is to use an Advent wreath with four candles during the four weeks of Advent. During the first week, one candle is lit, and each subsequent week an additional candle is lit. The four candles can represent hope, preparation (or peace), joy, and love. The third candle is historically pink to represent joy, while the other three candles are usually purple or blue to match the color of the season. The four candles have more recently been connected with prophecy, Bethlehem, shepherds, and angels. Often a Christ Candle is used in the center of the wreath and is lit (along with the four Advent candles) for any services during the 12 days of Christmas (Christmas Eve through January 5th).
The “eternal light” (also known as a sanctuary lamp, everlasting light, or eternal flame) is most often red and hangs suspended from the ceiling. This candle, which has its foundation in Exodus 27:20-21, always remains lit and reminds us of God’s continual presence, a promise Jesus reiterated in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst,” and again in Matthew 28:20, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In addition to God’s presence, candles remind us of God as our creator and source of light (Genesis 1:3). They point us to God’s Word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). They reflect Christ’s words from John 8, “I am the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.”