Why do different churches have different amounts of candles on the altar? Church rules indicate that at least two candles are to be burning during the celebration of Mass. In former days, six candles might be seen burning in what used to be called “high mass,” and even seven if the local bishop were to be the main celebrant.

A little history on altar candles: Pure beeswax candles have been used for light and to illuminate religious celebrations for more than 5,000 years. In the early years of Christianity, when followers were persecuted, beeswax candles were used in hushed ceremonies of small gatherings at night or in the catacombs surrounding Rome. Our church fathers proclaimed pure wax extracted from virgin bees as a symbol of the pure flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother. They taught us that the wick signified the soul of Christ, and the flame represented His divinity which absorbs and dominates both. Other authors claim that the three elements of a lit altar candle are related to Jesus Christ: the beeswax symbolizing His body, the wick His soul, and the flame His divinity; these are traditions and not in the canon of laws for the church. The symbolism of prayer has been connected with candles, with the burning flame of the candle representing the prayer that rises to God, and why they are most usually present in any liturgical celebration (remember – liturgy means public prayer, not a synonym for Mass).

Beeswax candles produced long-burning and smoke free candles which gave off a pleasant odor and did not stain the glass, ceilings and painted works of art in the magnificent churches of the time. Over the centuries, the church, in its infinite wisdom, set forth canon law stating that its candles must be “maxima parte” of beeswax to be in keeping with the pure flesh of Christ and to enrich the essence of the Holy Sacrifice of The Mass. At one time, in the early 20th century, church policy regarding the use of candles became so litigiously specific that, if before the consecration they happened to go out (by a gust of wind for example) and could not be relit within fifteen minutes, the celebration of Mass had to be abandoned. The missal now simply calls for two candles to be lit for the celebration of the Mass. This is just another practical example as to how the church has changed its perspective over time.