Light, Liturgical Use of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

LIGHT, LITURGICAL USE OF

The use of light in the liturgy is derived from four main sources: Jewish custom, pagan and civil ceremonial, practical necessity or convenience, and symbolism, both natural and Christian. This article treats biblical usage, pagan and civil ceremonial, Christian significance, and liturgical use.

Biblical Usage. The Mosaic Law prescribed that a seven-branched lampstand, made of the finest gold, be erected in the temple (Ex 25.3140). It was also customary for Jews to keep a light burning perpetually in the sanctuary (Ex 27.2021; Lv 24.24). The significance originally attached to this perpetual light is obscure, but the later Talmudists interpreted its burning as an act of reverence for the Torah kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

The custom of burning lights before the tombs of the Prophets was not unknown in Judaism; it was a practice common to all Mediterranean religions to light torches at funerals. A great many lights were used in some of the Jewish festivals as well, notably the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of the dedication of the temple, called by Hanukkah or Feast of Lights by modern Jews. The chaburah usually called for a ceremony in which a lamp was brought in and blessed with a formula such as: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, eternal King who createst the lamps of fire." This ceremony marked the beginning and the end of the Sabbath and was connected with several Jewish feasts.

Pagan and Civil Ceremonial. It was a popular pagan custom to light lamps and candles both in the sanctuaries and about the doorways of homes on religious festivals. Lights were burned before idols and statues of emperors. Although torches were used to kindle the funeral pyre, they had additional significance. Offering lights to the dead was regarded as a religious act; it was a means of honoring the dead who were thought to be living in the tomb. State functionaries were also honored with lights; for example, Roman consuls had the privilege of being preceded by torches or a thick candle. This was especially the right of the Roman emperors, particularly in the court ceremonial, and the custom was continued into the Middle Ages, both in the imperial court at Byzantium and in the palaces of Western kings.

Christian Significance of Light. Apart from any religious association, light conveys to the human mind a sense of joy, optimism, goodness, purity, beauty, festiveness, dignity, and life, while darkness signifies ignorance, error, sadness, gloom, desolation, death, and evil in general. This is why lights are used so profusely by all peoples in their celebrations, whether civil or religious. Moreover, all religions, using natural symbolism, associate light with goodness and the divinity, darkness with wickedness and the evil spirits. Christianity has special reason to associate light with God, for it would be difficult to find a theme more strongly emphasized by Scripture than God as light.

In the Old Testament, light has already become part of the figurative language used to describe God. His interventions in human history are surrounded by light, fire, and lightning (Ex 3.2; 19.16; Dt 33.2; Is 30.27; 66.15; Hb3.11; Za 14.7). Yahweh's glory shines with a brilliant light (Bar 5.9; Ez 10.4); He is robed in light (Ps 104.12). Thus, light is a symbol of His presence (Ex 13.21; 2 Chr4.7; 13.11). Indeed His nature is compared to light: "Thou shalt no more have the sun for thy light by day, neither shall the brightness of the moon enlighten thee; but the Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting light" (Is 60.19). When Yahweh shows His favor to the Israelites, He is said to let His countenance shine upon them (Nm 6.25; Ps 4.7; 89.16). As light is the symbol of devine protection (Jb 22.28; Ps 27.1; Mi 7.8), it is one of the blessings of Messianic salvation (Is 9.1; 58.8). The Servant of Yahweh himself is called a light (Is 42.6; 49.6; cf. Dn 12.3).

It is only natural for this symbolic language to be continued in the New Testament. God is called "the Father of lights (Jas 1.17); He "dwells in light inaccessible" (1 Tm 6.16). In fact, St. John says: "God is light and in Him there is no darkness" (1 Jn 1.5). Thus the Word, who before His Incarnation had engaged in a victorious struggle with darkness (Jn 1.5), is presented as the light-bringer (Lk 1.79; 2.32; Acts 26.23; 2 Cor 4.6), "the light of the world" (Jn 8.12; 9.5; 12.46), "the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world" (Jn1.9); His life is the light of men (Jn 1.4). This divine prerogative finally shines through the glorified humanity of Christ (Mt 17.25; 28.3; Acts 9.3; 22.611; 26.13). Those who believe in Him become the children of light opposed to the children of darkness (Mt 5.1416; Lk 16.8; Jn 3.19;5.35; 12.36; Acts 13.47; 2 Cor 3.18; Eph 5.8; 1 Thes 5.5; 1 Jn 1.67). Indeed Christ is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21.2324).

While in theology the logos as light of the Father is explained by way of intellectual generation or procession (see processions, trinitarian), the Nicene Creed professes faith in Christ as "light from light."

Liturgical Use. The importance of this light theme in the Christian life is shown in the numerous references to light in the Divine Office, particularly in the hymns of the various hours, which compares the permanence of the Christ-light to the rise and decline of the natural light of day. Vespers, named after the evening star, Vesper, developed out of a combination of the prayer service at the twelveth hour and the Lucernarium, the blessing of the evening lamp.

Christmas. The whole of the Christmas liturgy is centered upon the coming of the divine light into the world, of the light shining in the darkness. The Word, born in light from the womb of the Father, is born again in the obscurity of this world, in the darkness of the fleshly womb of Mary; His human birth is accompanied by the splendor of the heavenly bodies manifested to the sheperds (Lk 2.9) and the Magi (Mt 2.2, 9). There are deeper theological implications than usual behind the profuse display of lights commonly seen in Christmas decorations.

Candlemas. The Feast of Candlemas (Feb. 2) brings a fitting climax to the light theme of the Christmas cycle with the blessing and procession of lighted candles. The original reason behind this feast appears to be the meeting in the temple between the Holy Family and Simeon, who proclaimed the Infant to be "a light of revelation to the gentiles and a glory to the people of Israel" (Lk 2.32). Although a procession at Jerusalem is already mentioned in the fourthcentury diary of egeria [26; H. Pétré, Journal de voyage 21 (Paris 1948) 208], there is no indication that lights were used in it. A procession with lighted candles is certainly attested to in Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis (d. 565) in his life of St. Theodosius [E. Schwartz, Kyrillos von Skytopolis (Leipzig 1939) 236,24].

Easter. The Easter season, on the other hand, portrays the slow conquest of the darkness of sin by "the light of the world." During Lent He is seen to struggle with the powers of darkness that seem to triumph on Good Friday, but Christ rises from the darkness of the tomb with greater radiance and splendor than ever: "His countenance was like lightning and His raiment like snow" (Mt 28.3). This glorious victory of light over darkness is brought out dramatically in the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil: the striking of the new fire in utter darkness; the lighting of the paschal candle and its gradual dispelling of the darkness of the church building as its flame is extended to the smaller candles of the participants, accompanied by shouts of "Lumen Christi"; the magnificent strains of the Exsultet in praise of the paschal candle, symbol of Christ, the new "pillar of fire" (Ex 13.2122) who leads redeemed Israel out of the shadow of death.

The fact that the life of the Christian is a life in the Christ-light is brought out most pointedly by the celebration within the Easter Vigil of Baptism, the paschal sacrament par excellence. In Patristic times, catechumens were called illuminandi (those to be enlightened) and the newly baptized illuminati (the enlightened). It is in this context that we must place the use of light in every baptismal ceremony. The newly baptized is given a candle with the exhortation: "Receive this burning light." After the initiation of the neophyte, the faithful participating in the Easter Vigil renew their baptismal vows, holding their candles, which have been lighted from the flame of the paschal candle. Because the religious life has traditionally been considered a king of second Baptism, it has become common in ceremonies of reception of the habit and profession for the candidate to receive a lighted candle.

Symbols of Honor and Solemnity. The ancient civil custom of honoring state officials with torches and candles was taken over by the Church [T. Klauser, Der Ursprung der bischöflichen Insignien und Ehrenrechte (Krefeld 1953) 18]. Candles and torches were carried before popes, and later bishops; by the seventh century, seven candles were carried before such dignitaries and then placed on the pavement about the altar (Ordo Rom. 1.46, 52; 2.7; 4.78; M. Andrieu, Les 'Ordines Romani' du haut moyen-âge [Louvain 193161] 2:82, 84, 158). Much later candles were placed on the altar; Innocent III (d. 1216) states that two candles were used for papal Masses (De sacro altaris mysterio 2.21; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 217:811). This number mounted to seven by 1254 [E. Bishop, Liturgica Historica (Oxford 1918) 310311]. In the High Middle Ages, the quantity of candles on the altar emphasizes the solemnity of the occasion: seven for solemn pontifical Mass, six for high Mass, and two for low Mass.

It is in this context that we must place the carrying of lighted candles for the proclamation of the Gospel at solemn Mass. The Gospel Book, containing the Word of God, came to be considered as a symbol of Christ Himself and hence was honored with lights of joy (Jerome, Contra Vigilantium 7; Patrologia Latina 23:345).

Ceremonies Connected with the Dead. At first the Church inveighed against burning lights before the tombs of the dead (Council of Elvira from 301303, c.34; J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio [Florence-Venice 175798] 2:11); in fact Lactantius spoke out against any use of lights in worship because of their pagan implications (Divinae institutiones 6.2; Patrologia Latina 6:637639). However, when the pagan and superstitious connotations were no longer a danger, the Church adopted lamps and torches as a popular means of showing respect for martyrs (Jerome, Contra Vigilantium 7; Patrologia Latina 23:345) and other deceased Christians [see inscriptions in T. Klauser, Die Cathedra im Totenkult der heidnischen und christlichen Antike (Münster 1927) 127]. Lights were also carried in the funeral cortege [A. Rush, Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington 1941) 226227]. It is from this early Christian custom that we derive the practice of burning candles around the coffin during the burial rites in church.

It is obvious that this Christian use of light for the dead has a much deeper significance than in pagan practice. The body of the deceased Christian has been a temple of the Holy Trinity, a tabernacle of the Light that is God; it awaits the day of the resurrection when in its glorified state it will share in "the splendor of the saints." The use of lights recalls the sacredness of the body, the immortality of the soul, and the Beatific Vision to which both are destined and for which the Church prays: "Let perpetual light shine upon him." In this same spirit of respect are lights burned before images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.

Other Uses. Not every use of lights in worship bears a special significance. Without doubt torches, lamps, and candles were often used to provide the light necessary for functions celebrated at night or in dark churches. Apart from certain solemnizing extras, the ordinary lights in a church serve a purely utilitarian purpose. Nonetheless in some circumstances lights, once needed for functional reasons, have in time taken on symbolic meanings. A typical example of this sort of development is the bishop's bugia, a candle held or placed near the book the bishop reads from in pontifical services. The lack of adequate lighting, together with the difficulty of reading the contracted spelling of ancient manuscripts, once made this candle a practical necessity. When the original utilitarian reason no longer existed, the bugia evolved into a mark of honor for the bishop.

Bibliography: g. dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (2d ed. London 1945). f. j. dÖlger, Sol Salutis: Gebet und Gesang im christlichen Altertum (2d ed. Münster 1925); "Lumen Christi," Antike und Christentum 5 (1936) 143; Die Sonne der Gerechtigkeit und der Schwarze (Münster 1918). a. g. martimort, L'Église en prière (Tournai 1961).

[b. i. mullahy/eds.]