By John Sanidopoulos
Question: Why do we light candles in the Orthodox Church?
Answer: There are typically two types of candles that Orthodox are familiar with. First there are the genuine pure beeswax candles made from the combs of hives. Secondly, there are the paraffin wax candles made from petroleum. When the Fathers of the Church speak of the Orthodox use of candles, they are referring to the pure beeswax candles and not the latter. Paraffin wax produces carcinogens and soot when burned. In fact, one air quality researcher stated that the soot from a paraffin candle contains many of the same toxins produced by burning diesel fuel.
With this information in mind, we can better understand the six symbolic representations of lit candles handed down to us by Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki:
1. As the candle is pure (pure beeswax), so also should our hearts be pure.
2. As the pure candle is supple (as opposed to the paraffin), so also should our souls be supple until we make it straight and firm in the gospel.
3. As the pure candle is derived from the pollen of a flower and has a sweet scent, so also should our souls have the sweet aroma of Divine Grace.
4. As the candle, when it burns, mixes with and feeds the flame, so also we can struggle to achieve theosis.
5. As the burning candle illuminates the darkness, so must the light of Christ within us shine before men that God's name be glorified.
6. As the candle gives its own light to illuminate a person in the darkness, so also must the light of the virtues, the light of love and peace, characterize a Christian. The wax that melts symbolizes the flame of our love for our fellow men.
Besides the six symbolic representations above, Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite gives us six different reasons why Orthodox light candles:
1. To glorify God, who is Light, as we chant in the Doxology: "Glory to God who has shown forth the light..."
2. To dissolve the darkness of the night and to banish away the fear which is brought on by the darkness.
3. To manifest the inner joy of our soul.
4. To bestow honor to the saints of our Faith, imitating the early Christians of the first centuries who lit candles at the tombs of the martyrs.
5. To symbolize our good works, as the Lord said: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the heavens." The priest also gave us this charge following our baptism.
6. To have our own sins forgiven and burned away, as well as the sins of those for whom we pray.
For all these reasons cited by our Holy Fathers, let us often light our candles and make sure as much as possible that they be pure candles. We should abstain from all corruption and uncleanness, so that all of the above symbolism is made real in our Christian lives.
At one point during the Presanctified Divine Liturgy the liturgist holds a lit candle, and facing the people he proclaims: "The light of Christ shines on all". Christ is "the true light who enlightens and sanctifies all men". Are we worthy recipients of this light? The saints themselves constantly sought after this light. Let us then also imitate the saints and like Saint Gregory Palamas continuously supplicate the Lord in the following words: "Enlighten my darkness".
Question: Is there any other reason why we light our candle in church?
Answer: Besides the higher spiritual reasons mentioned above for why we light candles, there is another simpler and practical reason: to make a financial offering to the church. When we go to light our candle, we should also give an offering for the various services and expenses of the church. The church gives us the candle as a blessing for our offering and allows us to ignite the flame of the symbolisms mentioned above.
Question: Should we light candles outside the church as well?
Answer: It is good and laudable to light candles at home when we pray, when the priest visits for a house blessing with Holy Water or Holy Unction, and even light a candle when we visit the grave of a loved one.
Question: Is there any other purpose to the candle?
Answer: When we light a candle in the church, we are making an offering to the church or to a particular icon to beautify it and show through physical light the symbolization of the uncreated light of God's house or the saint depicted in the icon. It is also customary for the faithful to offer pure beeswax candles at the Consecration of a new church.
See also: Why We Light Oil Lamps and Candles Before Relics and Icons