Emerging Worship: Votive Candles, Prayer, and Postmoderns

by Daniel Benedict
candleI received an e-mail from a new United Methodist who wondered why the United Methodist church he attends does not have votive candle racks where worshipers can light votive candles and offer prayers of special intention. He said that he had been Roman Catholic and had been taught that the smoke and light of the candle carries the prayer to God. I wrote back and told him that I understand our prayers coming to God more immediately through the agency of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:26). I certainly don't mention this here to in any way reflect badly on the teaching in Catholic churches. I shudder to think what many United Methodists say about what they were taught!

In any event, I affirmed this man's desire for such an opportunity for prayer and said that some United Methodist churches do have votive candle racks and use them during worship. I even told him that Cokesbury has votive candles and candle racks in its catalog and online store.That is imprimatur enough, don't you think? In orthodox churches, a different approach is taken: pans of sand are set out, and people light thin beeswax tapers and place them in the sand. Often, these pans are at chest height so that one reaches up to place the candle. This gives some safety as sleeves are not near the flame, and the sand absorbs the wax and will not burn.

candlesLighting votive candles is consistent with the emerging worship trends that embrace mystery, participation, and entering into reality through experience. Worshipers at Monrovia United Methodist Church near Los Angeles light the candles as they gather for worship. Others light them during the concerns and prayers as people make use of several options that include praying with someone with whom they are prompted to pray, remaining seated in silent prayer, or going to the table where there is oil and praying for healing with someone waiting for prayer. Asked about how the practice got started, Pastor Greg Douglasssays that it began at a Watch Night/New Years' Eve in the Taizé style. He explained, "It tends to be younger people and older people who come to light candles. Middle-age folk are slower to take up the practice," He added, "Some people who light votive candles are overwhelmed and don't know what to pray; lighting a candle gives them a physical way of acting out a concern without having to put it into words. Fairly new Christians are more apt to light a candle as a prayer action," he said. He noted that some people with an orthodox or Catholic background come by to light candles during the week when the church is open.

Back to the e-mail mentioned in the first paragraph — I asked the sender if he was a young person, thinking that his inquiry was in tune with postmodern sensibilities. He wrote back that he was in his 70's and was grateful for his new life among United Methodists! Well, that e-mail makes it clear that entering into mystery and the Presence is not just an 18-30-age thing!

If you decide to add votive candles to your worship space as an invitation to expand the ways of prayer in worship, be sure you (1) win the support of your leaders, teaching them what this is about and why it meets a need in people of varied temperaments and (2) put the candles in a place where there are no flammable materials. On fire for the Lord may not always be a good thing!

You might introduce the practice of lighting candles at a special service at night, such as Watch Night or on Ash Wednesday or Christmas Eve. Include a written and spoken notice that invites people to offer prayer with the lighting of a candle.

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Daniel Benedictis retired fromThe General Board of Discipleship.

"Emerging Worship: Votive Candles, Prayer, and Postmoderns" Copyright © 2004 The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, PO Box 340003, Nashville TN 37203-0003.

The photo of the candle in front of the icon was taken by Daniel Benedict and is copyright © 2004, Dan Benedict, The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. All comers are welcome to use it — as long as the following copyright notice is included: Photo Copyright © 2004 Daniel Benedict. Used with permission.

The photo of the candle rack is from Cokesbury online.

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I was asked about the scriptural and theological rationale for the use of votive candles, so I have added this endnote: In terms of scripture, the equivalent of candles would have been lamps. There are frequent references to lamps in both the OT and in the Gospels. Some of the references are to lights used in sacred space and, of course, they served both a symbolic and practical function — metaphorically speaking of inward illumination and providing light by which to move and read.

However, the use of votive candles is more focused than metaphorical or actual light. Votive comes from the Latin for "vow" and means "dedicated, consecrated, offered in consequence of a vow or intention." So lighting a votive candle is expressive of a vow, desire, or wish. In this sense, lighting a votive candle is an outward way of expressing an intention or prayer for someone, some concern or need of another, or for one's self. In this sense, it is a sacramental practice, having both an outward sign and an inward intention or move of the heart toward God. Candles, because they burn and are consumed, also express a sacrifice, a using up until burned out.

Theologically, then, the practice is one of offering a focused prayer/intention to God in an embodied way. There is no reason that one would have to do this, but there is a good reason to invite people to do this as we are psycho-spiritual-physical creatures of God. Too long the enlightenment-modernist approach has been toward disembodiment of the spiritual life. As with much of the recovery of the sacramental life in Protestant worship and prayer in the last 30 years and in what we are witnessing in the emergent church, candles play a role in recovery of mystery and praying in embodied ways. In a much more general way, we could say that "light" is a creation of God — the first in the Genesis 1 narrative about which God said, "That is good."

The use of votive candles, as with much of the specific practices of the church, can be seen in the domain of what is permissive by God's freedom for us to pray and praise in creative and diverse ways. It ought never to be part of the domain of commandments, law, and ordained practices.