What is the symbolism of candles at Mass?
In the Catholic Church, many physical objects are used at Mass that to the casual observer may appear random.
The truth is the exact opposite.
Each item used at Mass is there for a specific purpose, and has beautiful symbolism behind it.
Here is a list of the most common objects you may see at Mass and why the Church finds them spiritually useful. (You can click on the links to learn more about the symbolism.)
Candles have always been used in the Church in a symbolic way. From ancient times the lighted candle has been seen as a symbol of the light of Christ. This is clearly expressed at the Easter Vigil, when the deacon or priest enters the darkened church with the single Easter candle. Jesus came into our world of sin and death to bring the light of God to us. He expressed this idea clearly in the Gospel of John: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
There are some who also point to the use of candles as a remembrance of the early Christians who celebrated Mass in the catacombs by candlelight. It is said that this should remind us of the sacrifice they made as well as the possibility that we too could be in a similar situation, celebrating Mass under threat of persecution.
Incense was a vital part of worship for many ancient religions, including the Jewish worship of God. In the Tabernacle, as well as the Temple, God commanded that an “altar of incense” be built. God directed that Aaron, the High Priest, “shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:8).
Connected to this tradition is the best known phrase mentioning incense in the Old Testament, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
Christians quickly adopted the use of incense, and it appears prominently in the book of Revelation in the heavenly liturgy, where St. John describes, “the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Revelation 8:4).
Christopher Carstens explains in his book Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Massthat the Mass is more a heavenly banquet than a re-enactment of an ordinary Passover meal.
Does it matter that Christ may not have used a “precious chalice” at the Last Supper? That he used a chalice is imperative for the Church and her re-presentation of his sacrifice; and while it may be that the chalice was not outwardly precious, it was made precious by its contents. For while the Mass and its Eucharistic prayer hearken back to actions of Christ in the upper room some two thousand years ago, that historical action currently exists in heavenly splendor, which is why it can be made present to us at all. The cup of the first Paschal meal in time is now furnished with divine splendors and is “the chalice of great joy, of the true feast, for which we all long,” and it is this divine chalice that our sacramental chalice emulates.
The Mass is viewed in Catholic theology as the “wedding feast of the Lamb” found in the book of Revelation. It is meant to remind us of and draw us toward our heavenly home and the place where we will encounter the Bridegroom in all of his glory.
Even more so, the Mass it not simply a reminder of heaven, it is where “heaven and earth kiss.” The sacrifice of the Mass brings us into contact with the divine and literally raises us up into heaven.
Over the chalice is laid the purificator, a fine white linen cloth that is used to wipe the lips and fingers of the priest and to cleanse the chalice after Communion. The sacristan — the person who cares for the sacred vessels and linens — cleans the purificator separately from other linens after Mass, because it holds traces of the Precious Blood.
The paten (from the Latin word for pan or plate) is a saucer-like circular dish of or lined with precious metal. At Mass, the priest places the large primary host on the paten, where at the consecration it (and other smaller hosts to be received by the congregation, held in a container called the ciborium) becomes the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Where congregants receive Communion on the tongue, a server may hold a plate (also called a paten) under the communicant’s chin, so that no consecrated host or particle falls to the ground. In preparing the vessels for Mass, the paten with the large unconsecrated host is set atop the chalice, with the purificator underneath it.
Before the offertory of the Mass, the chalice is covered with a square of linen stiffened with cardboard. This covering, called the pall (from the Latin word for “cover”), keeps foreign objects — like dust or insects — from falling into the chalice or onto the paten and contaminating them.
The chasuble is seen as the “yoke of Christ” and reminds the priest that he is “another Christ” in the sacrifice of the Mass and has “put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:24).
Additionally, the chasuble symbolizes the “seamless garment” worn by Christ when he was led to his crucifixion. This further accentuates the connection between the priest, the Mass, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A common ornamentation of the chasuble is a large cross on the back or front of the vestment to further cement the symbolism. The color of this vestment is coordinated with the symbolic color of the liturgical season or feast.