In the Old Testament times, if someone wanted to offer a small sacrifice for the family, that would include offering a dove or, in the case of people who had more wealth, sheep. That was the way for individuals and families to stay connected to God and show to Him that they are willing to sacrifice their own property, cattle or birds in order to get the blessing of the Lord. The sacrifices would be offered for the living but also for those who departed this life. This way of offering sacrifices to God became obsolete in the New Testament with Jesus’ teaching. Therefore, every sacrifice that is offered in the Church now is considered to be a bloodless sacrifice.
One of the “sacrifices” we offer in the Church instead of slaughtering a sheep, is to light a candle. We offer beeswax to God as a sacrifice as well as oil in the vigil lamps. This is our way to show respect to God and to sacrifice little bit of our money and show to God that He has the absolute advantage over everything we own and possess. Whenever we light a candle, we offer it for the living and departed or both as a well pleasing sacrifice to God. The size of the candle does not matter but the intention behind lighting it.
There are a few misconceptions about offering candles in the Church which we have to be aware of:
1. Candles for the dead should be placed in the sand
This misconception comes from a pious tradition which connects the sand in which we place candles together with the earth in which we place the bodies of the dead. There is nothing mandatory which obliges us to place the candle for the dead in the sand. The sand only serves the purpose of holding the candle upright (and creating the mess in the narthex!). It does not have any theological connotation at all! That being said, you can light a candle for the dead and place it on the metal candle holder.
2. Candles for the living have to be placed on the candle shelf that is on top
In some Churches, there are candle burners which are arranges in such a way to have two levels. Sometimes people insist that you have to place the candle for the living on top because the living are, still walking on the surface of the earth. On the other hand, the candle for the dead should be placed on the bottom shelf because the dead are under the surface of the earth. Needless to say, this is all not theologically grounded. If you would like to light a candle for the living and place it on the bottom shelf, God, being the all-knowing, can certainly make a difference between the dead and alive and will not mix the living members of your family with the dead and send death to grab them.
3. You must light a separate candle for the living and for the dead
Correcting this misconception might mean that the Church will have less income coming through candle sales. When we are lighting a candle, we can commemorate both living and the dead on one candle (unlimited number of names!) and then light the candle. There is no need to have two different candles to commemorate living and the dead. In God, everyone is alive!
4. Each candle, represents one individual
As was mentioned in the previous paragraph, we can have unlimited number of names on any candle. There is no need to use a candle per person (regardless of still alive or dead).
Finally, we should acknowledge the richness of tradition in the Orthodox Church but be careful when it comes to understanding what comes from the Church and what comes from the abundance of superstition that we may have inherited along the way. In the case of candles, let us be aware that the most important thing is not how much the candle costs, nor the size of it, nor where it is placed upon being lit, but the pure heart which offers the candle while asking God to grant blessing to all those we pray for.