When entering a Catholic Church, there are certain things we expect to see. In the center of the sanctuary we will see an altar. Most commonly, behind the altar we will see the tabernacle with a red lamp burning next to it, reminding us of Christ’s real presence hidden within the Eucharist. There are Stations of the Cross along the walls and other paintings, statues, and icons. There are pews and kneelers, a choir loft or other place to lead music.
In addition to all these things, most Catholic Churches have some place to light votive candles. Though a votive candle stand is a common fixture in most Catholic Churches, we may not have taken the time to reflect on its meaning and its purpose.
The symbolism of using a votive candle is manifold. First, we can consider the candle itself. In Christianity, the candle has always been considered a symbol for Christ. It gives light in the darkness, but to do so it must consume itself, just as Christ gave his life to be the light of the world. Therefore, Christ is always at the center of this devotional practice, as the candle is a symbol of his gift of self.
However, the candle does not light itself. A member of the faithful makes the choice to set the small candle aflame. In so doing, this Christian is indicating a desire to participate in that same sacrificial gift of Christ. Like Christ, this gift of self is offered for someone. The Christian offers the sacrifice for a family member, a friend, a stranger, or even for a particular intention for one’s own life.
It is this manifest desire for a particular intention or person from which the practice derives its name, votive. A votive offering is an expression of a hope and a promise. It is the hope that some desire expressed before God would be fulfilled and a promise to sacrifice to that end.
What is the sacrifice that is offered by the Christian? It is twofold. First, every votive stand has a place to make an offering. Most think that this is a place to pay for the price of the candle, but that is not its authentic spiritual meaning. Rather, it is a place to make a personal sacrifice offered for the sake of the intention that the candle expresses. The money is a symbolic representation of our work, our time, and an expression of our willingness to give of ourselves in love, for the hope the candle symbolizes. As a concrete example, if I made ten dollars for an hour of work, a gift of five dollars would be an expression to God that I am offering to Him a half hour of labor for the intention I am placing before Him.
The second aspect of our sacrifice is that of prayer. When we light the candle, we are making a pledge that we will pray for the intention expressed by the candle and we need not pray alone. Typically votive candles are placed before an image of a saint, which reminds us to ask for his or her intercession and the intercession of all the saints and angels. Additionally, the burning candles are visible to all our brothers and sisters in Christ who enter the Church, inviting them also to join in praying on behalf of the intentions expressed by those little flames. In this way, votive candles are not only a manifestation of our own intentions and sacrifices but a reminder of the vast family of faith to which we belong, both on earth and in heaven.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!