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How to Light Candles in Church

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.  


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8 Responses

  1. Amen! This, after 30 years of being Orthodox, makes sense to me! I always thought “God knows who I am praying for!” Father Stefan, once again you bring clarity to a cloudy topic!

  2. Light a candle for my mother, Helen Mrkich, and other candle for my sister Mary Fowler, and one more for my bother Paul Micheal Horrell, who all have fallen a sleep to awake in Are heavily Father’s house without pain or sorrow. I love you all . Memory Eternal. AMEN

  3. We truly are Blessed to have you Father Stefan! You are always working and teaching us about Orthodoxy thus, bringing us closer to God. Hvala

  4. I think the “Vestibule” is the Catholic term for the lobby and the “Narthax” is a protestant version of the same place.
    It would be interesting to know the sequence that the altar boy lights the candles for Mass and also for snuffing them out afterwards. I think that they are in reverse order.
    Orémus Y’all.

  5. I try to light a candle weekly for my family, 8 year old grandson etc. I noticed that the preferred open space I choose is being moved around by church people helping and one lady weekly goes in with a box of candles and moves the candles underneath the 4 rows individual Candle holders. She then puts her box of individual candles in the holders. Again the candles she removes are not completely burnt out since they burn up to 3 days. I prefer to put my Candle in an open space and am uncomfortable about it being moved or placed on the bottom shelf. I usually like the 4th row personal reasons, but I will never remove or replace another person’s Candle. What is Candle etiquette? I don’t want to buy candles weekly if my Candle just gets moved underneath on a shelf, under the candle holders .

  6. I am sure this is all theologically correct. But I loved my Mum and Grandma teaching me to light a candle each for the people in my heart. It allowed me to focus on each person and reflect on what they meant to me and honour their passing. And I had so much comfort in lighting the candles to people who had passed on the bottom tier and then refocus my energy on the living. I will continue to use these rituals to nourish me and to remember how lovingly they were taught to me.

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