Prayer Candles and Their Color Meanings
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and John’s brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light,” Matthew 17:1-2
The different candles within a church have various meanings. The Eternal Flame is a candle, or an oil lamp lit to signify the Lord’s presence within the tabernacle. Usually, it is in a red container suggesting the red Passion of Christ. The Paschal candle is a large candle that symbolizes the Paschal Mystery in the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Altar candles, votive candles, vigil candles all have places secured in the Church’s history.
Candles used in Church are white because of bleached beeswax. This represents the perfection of Christ (Matthew 17:2). With special permission, a priest can use tinted or gilt candles in rare situations. During Holy Week and funeral Masses, only pure, unbleached beeswax candles are used. This pure beeswax gives them a yellowish tint representing the unblemished purity of Christ.
Advent wreaths are a common sight in Catholic churches using vigil candles. Three purple and one pink candles are embedded in evergreen. The evergreen reminds us of John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.” The tapered purple and pink vigil candles, from the Latin word vigila, remind us we are anxiously “awaiting” or “watching” (Matthew 25:1-13).
The circular Advent wreath goes back to ancient Germanic and Scandinavians who lit ceremonial fires in the dark, icy winter months to placate their gods and marshal in the springtime. Scandinavians would place their offerings in the shape of a wheel. They believed their god of light turned the globe on his wheel for the changing of the seasons. Catholics continued this practice as a reminder to remain hopeful in the gloomiest of months for the coming of Jesus Christ.
During the Middle Ages, Christian Germans would light white and red candles to show children when Christmas was coming. Each candle was lit on a Sunday leading up to Christmas. This is also where we get the traditional red and white decorations during Christmastime. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century when America experienced vast German immigration the circular wreaths gained acceptance in the United States. The Church wanted to use this practice in celebration with their new parishioners, so they added a distinctive Catholic flair to the wreaths and changed the color of the candles from red and white to purple and pink.
The purple and pink colors have significance. The purple candle denotes the penance one should undertake during the Advent season. During Lent, we sometimes use more reddish-purple colors to indicate the blood of Christ and his Passion. The bluish-purple in the Advent wreath suggests the blue connected to the Mother of God.
The pink candle is a celebratory one. This candle is lit on Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoicing.” We light this candle and the wreath is more than halfway lit, three instead of two, and signaling the overpowering of the Prince of Darkness by the Light of Christ (John 1:5). Sometimes there is a white candle in the middle signifying Christ (Revelation 1:14) and is lit on Christmas day.
There are many reasons why we have four candles in our Advent wreaths. The four can represent a thousand years each. This is the amount of time believed to be from Adam and Eve’s Original Sin to the birth of Jesus who saved us from it. Other accounts believe the first candle is representative of the patriarchs of the Church; the pope and the various archbishops throughout the Church. Next is another purple candle that denotes the prophets of the Old Testaments. The third is the candle for Saint John the Baptist who warned of Jesus’ coming which fitting because this is the candle that signifies the time where the light conquers the dark. The final candle, right before the white candle is lit, is our Blessed Mother who brought forth the Light into our world.
Catholic candles have significant meanings. The colors we use in Catholic churches remind us every time we enter how precious Jesus’ flame is. When we light a candle, we must remember our own lights and how we can overcome darkness by being a lantern in the night.