Each Sunday, the Methodist church service begins with candles lit by acolytes and ends with these same candles being extinguished. Special additional candles are used during the holiday services surrounding the celebrations of the Christmas and Easter seasons. Methodist churches sometimes also include candles in baptisms, wedding ceremonies and funerals.
The Light of Christ
Light in the form of a flame is carried into the church sanctuary to symbolize the entrance of Christ’s light into the place of worship. Candles are lit before the service begins and, once the ministers have concluded the service’s final blessing are extinguished to symbolize the exit of the Lord’s light with the people of the congregation out into the world. The Bible verse found in John 8:12 – “I am the Light of the World” – is the primary inspiration for this ritual of candle lighting and extinguishing to begin and end a Methodist worship service. Even in this modern world of electric light, Methodist churches only use candles with an actual flame as a part of the worship service.
The Advent Wreath
The four Sundays before Christmas, combined with Christmas Eve, make up the season of Advent, and most Methodist churches celebrate this with the lighting of the candles of an Advent wreath – one candle to honor each of these special days. The lighting of each special candle is accompanied by words of devotion spoken by the minister. The first two Sundays, purple candles are lit. The third Sunday of Advent is devoted to Mary, Jesus’ mother and a rose-colored candle is lit. On the fourth Sunday, the final purple is dedicated and lit, and, on Christmas Eve, the whole Advent wreath is lit.
An acolyte is a helper or attendant, and derives from ancient Greek. Within a Methodist church service, acolytes are the bearers of the flame that light the candles at the opening of the service and extinguish them at the service’s conclusion. In many Methodist churches, the acolytes serve as the assistants to the ministers in other ways, including assisting with offering, communion and baptisms. Often, acolytes are teenage boys, but can be of any age or gender. Acolytes traditionally have specific garments that they wear, just as Methodist ministers traditionally wear a robe and stole.
The Paschal Candle at Easter
For an Easter sunrise service, the minister would gather the congregation outside the church. After a greeting and opening prayer, he might then light a special candle called the Paschal candle (whose name means “deliverance” in Hebrew) as a call for the congregation to follow him in procession into the sanctuary. Each member of the congregation would then light their candle from the Paschal candle and process after the minister into the church. The Paschal candle would be set in a visible place of honor once the minister arrives at the altar inside. This candle is meant to symbolize the risen Christ. Alternately, some congregations use this candle for Easter and at baptisms and funerals.
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