The Lighting of the Altar Candles for Episcopalians

by Susan Peterson

Before the invention of electric lights, candles were a matter of necessity. Though no longer essential from a practical standpoint, candles still appear in nearly every Episcopal church. During the Eucharist, those candles are lit and extinguished as part of the ritual. In other words, what began as a simple source of light has become a part of the ritual of the Church and even a powerful symbol for Episcopalians.

Symbolism

Candles, not surprisingly, symbolize light. That light can refer to Jesus, who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Light can also refer to the enlightenment that follows hearing the Gospel. When the candles sit on the altar during the Eucharistic service, they represent the presence of God in worship, Gospel reading and the Eucharist.

History

Altar candles were common in Roman Catholic churches during the Middle Ages. The earliest record of candles in an Anglican church -- the Episcopal Church is an Anglican church -- is from the reign of King Edward VI. He called for two lights to be placed on the altar to symbolize that Christ is the light of the world. According to Don S. Armentrout, author of "An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church," altar candles have been common in Anglican churches since the 16th century. In the 19th century, during the ritualist controversy, however, some American churchmen rejected altar candles as being too Catholic. But their viewpoint was never sanctioned by the Church as a whole.

Eucharistic Service

Altar candles are lit during Eucharistic service. They are not lit during Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer unless those services include the Eucharist. Before the service begins, acolytes or members of the altar guild light the candles. The candles are extinguished by the same people after the dismissal. Though it is primarily a utilitarian act, the ritual of lighting and extinguishing the candles has become for some Episcopalians the ritual beginning and the ending of the service.

Altar Candles

Altar candles are tall, thin candles made of beeswax and stearine. They are topped with a brass or glass candle follower, which helps keep wax from spilling on the altar linens. Altar candles are lit using a taper, which is a lit wick attached to a long handle. They are lit and extinguished in a particular order so that the Gospel side candle is never burning alone. The Gospel side of the church is the left side as you are facing the front. So the candles are lit from right to left and extinguished from left to right.

Resources

  • An Introduction to the Episcopal Church; Joseph B. Bernardin

About the Author

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.

Photo Credits

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