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Comparative Theology, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
74- Lights and Candles
The Orthodox Church is characterised by its lights. We use candles in our prayers, during the Bible reading, in front of the icons of the saints, on the altar, in the sanctuary in general and in front of the altar on its eastern side, and the church remains lighted constantly. Our brethren the Protestants do not use any of these rites despite their symbolic significance.
In this brief article we will discuss the subject of lights in the church, the reason for using them and the spiritual meanings they carry.
(1) The church itself is called in the Holy Bible the golden lampstand. This is clear from the Book of Revelation. St. John the Visionary saw the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of seven golden lampstands and the Lord said to him: “...the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (Rev.1: 20).
(2) The church resembles heaven because it is the house of God or God's dwelling place. This is nearly the expression used about the first house of God. Jacob the Patriarch said: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Gen.28: 17) Since the church resembles heaven, it must have lights to illuminate it like the stars of heaven.
(3) The lights in the church may represent the angels in heaven or the angels whom Jacob saw in his vision ascending and descending the ladder in Bethel (‘House of God’) (Gen.28:12). The lights symbolise the angels because the angels are also called angels of light (2Cor.11: 14).
(4) The lights of the church also symbolise the saints, to whom the Lord says: “Let your light so shine before men” (Matt.5: 16). On this occasion the Lord likens the saints to lighted lamps put on lampstands (Matt.5: 15).
Also, the Holy Bible says: “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt.13: 43). And the Lord Jesus Christ said to the Jews about John the Baptist as an example of those righteous: “He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John.5: 35). Since the church is full of angels and saints then it ought to be full of lights.
(5) Primarily the church ought to be filled with lights because of God's presence in it: God is Light (John.1: 5) and the Lord Jesus Christ says of Himself: “I am the Light of the world” (John.8: 12).
(6) The church is lighted by lights after the pattern of the Tabernacle and the Sanctuary. They were full of lights and their lamps were never put out. The Lord commanded that the lamps be lighted by pure olive oil under the supervision of Aaron and his children as an everlasting statute. The Lord says: "And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually. In the tabernacle of meeting, outside the veil, which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening until morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to their generations" (Ex.27: 20,21).
This is a Divine command, given by God who said on the first day of creation: “ ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good" (Gen.1: 3,4).
(7) The lamps, which are lighted by oil, have a spiritual meaning. The oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, It was used for anointing, after which the Spirit of the Lord descended: When Samuel anointed David, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power (1Sam.16: 13). The Holy Bible also tells us about the anointing from the Holy One (1John.2: 20,27).
Even the candles which we light in church are made of oil, and the lamps in church are lighted by oil for the same symbolic significance.
(8) We notice that the Lord commanded that lampstands be made in His house, whether the Tabernacle or the Sanctuary. The lamps and the lampstands were made of pure gold (Ex.25: 31); (Ex.37: 17); (2Chr.4: 20). All these are proof of God’s concern about the existence of lights in His house.
(9) The lamps were lighted continually upon God's command. Extinguishing the lamps' light or negligence in lighting them were considered as treachery to the Lord and deserved severe punishment, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Concerning this, the Holy Bible says: “For our fathers have trespassed and done evil in the eyes of the Lord our God; they have forsaken Him, have turned their faces away from the habitation of the Lord, and turned their backs on Him. They have also shut up the doors of the vestibule, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense... therefore the wrath of the Lord fell upon Judah and Jerusalem, and He has given them up to trouble, to astonishment” (2Chr.29: 6-8). All these show us how God cares for lights in His house.
(10) Lighting lamps has a special profound spiritual meaning. It symbolises constant readiness, perpetual watchfulness and preservation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart.
Concerning this readiness, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us: “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching” (Lk.12:35).
The Lord Jesus Christ gives us the parable of the five wise virgins whose lamps were burning whilst the lamps of the five foolish virgins went out (Matt.25: 1-12).
The oil of the lamp symbolises the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. The constant burning symbolises the constant watchfulness in keeping the heart tied to the work of the Holy Spirit within it.
(11) What is said about individuals can also be said about the whole church. When people see the lights in church they are reminded of their duties in preserving the light inside them and that their lamps should be lighted continually. They remember that the church is one of the five wise virgins who kept their lamps lighted.
(12) With regard to lighting candles during the Gospel reading, this is undoubtedly better than reading the Gospel without light. It reminds us of the verse: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119), and also “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19).
(13) The Early Church, ever since the Apostolic Era, has given importance to lights and their symbols. The Book of Acts tells us about the upper room from which St. Paul was preaching after the breaking of the bread: “There were many lamps... where they were gathered” (Acts 20: 8).
(14) The candles that we light before the saints’ icons remind us that the saints were lights in their generations; they were like candles, melting in order that their light might shine before people.
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