You may have noticed that we have added more altar candles on the altar of sacrifice recently. With the refurbishment of our altars, the size of the top of the altar (called the mensa) was increased. This increase in size allowed us to purchase additional candles to put on the altar. When the mensa was smaller, the additional candles would not have fit well with the missal stand and the sacred vessels. Now that we have more room, it all fits nicely.
If you attend daily Mass, you might have noticed that the number of candles we have out each day changes. Some people have asked why the number changes (from two to four to six). There is a principle of “progressive solemnity” in the liturgy: that is, as the feast day gets “higher” we increase the solemnity of the Mass. One easy way to do this is by changing the number of candles on the altar.
The schema that we use here at OLQH followed the rules governing Mass: on weekdays on which there is no celebration of a saint (known as ferial days) and on optional memorials of saints, we use two candles. When there is an obligatory memorial of a saint, we use four candles. On a feast or solemnity, we use six candles. Since Sundays are always solemnities, we will always use six candles for Sunday Masses. As a matter of trivia, if the bishop would ever come to the parish to celebrate Mass, we would use an odd number of candles as the Church’s tradition is to always use an odd number of candles, usually seven, when a bishop celebrates Mass.
With the invention of electric light, some people ask why we still use candles at Mass since we no longer need them to see. Candles are symbols of the presence of Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12), and of baptism by which we share in his light (Colossians 1:12) and are also signs of reverence and festivity (think of lighting birthday candles to celebrate a birthday). Prior to the Second Vatican Council altar candles were to be composed primarily of pure beeswax, with the exact percentage determined by the diocesan bishop (often 51 or 65%), since the beeswax symbolized the pure flesh Christ received from his Virgin Mother, the wick symbolized his soul, and the flame his divinity. After Vatican II, there are no longer regulations concerning candles’ composition but most churches, including ours, still use 51% beeswax since it is cleaner and longer burning. It was often common (and still is in some places) to use unbleached candles for funerals and during Lent and Advent as a sign of mourning or penitence.