Name two things you would most certainly associate with worship
Name the two things that you would most certainly encounter upon an altar, a Christian one, that is.
Flowers and candles.
Tomorrow would mark another turn in the liturgical calendar, as we would once again be celebrating the Feast of the Presentation. I am well aware of the significance that candles have for this feast, also known commonly as Candlemas, because of the ancient tradition of having candles blessed during this day, and of having these candles brought in procession at the start of the Mass (well, that would depend on the entrance rite that the priest would be chosing). The after the feast, these same candles, blessed the day before, would be used to impart another special blessing, now gaining popularity and usage, at least in the Archdiocese of Palo, I’m not sure in other places, in honor of St. Blase’s day: the blessing of the throats.
As I’ve mentioned, the candles have significance more with them lighted for the feast of the presentation. The candle flame brings to mind the words of Simon when he referred to the Child Jesus whom he held in his arms as the “light to the nations”. In Butler’s Lives of the Saints the author explains that “we hold these lights in our hands to honor Christ, and acknowledge him as the true light, whom they represent under this character, and who is called by holy Simeon in this mystery, a light for the enlightening of the Gentiles; for he came to dispel our spiritual darkness. The candles likewise express that by faith his light shines in our souls: as also that we are to prepare his way by good works, by which we are to be a light to men”.
Today also we celebrate the World Day for Consecrated Life. I’m thinking that this was the day chosen especially for that due to the connection of religious consecration with the consecration of the Christ-Child at the Temple being celebrated in this feast. This brings me back to the question that I would like to pose in this entry: as symbols on the altar, common signs present in Christian worship, what do flowers and candles speak to us about consecrated life?
By consecrated life I do not only refer to that lived by religious, though they are precisely in the crosshairs of my reflection; I would rather include the reality of the priestly life (of course) and the Christian life as a whole, something that is also (and should be) consecrated to Him.
It’s quite late. It’s nearly eleven in the evening here as I write, my eyes are tired and I’m anticipating the arrival of the cold from that has come all the way from Europe just to bid us a good day tomorrow, with temperatures that could go way down below zero. So this means I’ll be concise. We know that it gives light, and therefore as such has an orientative aspect: the mission to show people not only the way, but also the situation that they’re in. Between the flame and the darkness that surrounds it there will always be an antithetical relationship: one is to the other because it precisely isn’t what the other is. A consecrated life, while being in the world, isn’t of the world. Going further, the life totally consecrated to God points directly to the life that is to come; this allows us to appreciate why the Church has considered the religious life as one having the mission of the eschatological witnessing. In other words, the religious life—that lived by the sister and friars (and by priests by extension with their priestly life and celibacy)—point towards the future life wherein the human person would be able to love God directly, wherein human loves would irresistibly drawn towards this Love, which simply irresistible for the heart that has been totally created just for loving.
Once a candle is placed upon the altar, it will serve no other purpose than that of giving light for the services. It has no other function in the cult but to give glory to God. During the first centuries when electric lighting was unknown and were churches were known for their cavernous interior, candlelight was a big help. In this time and age wherein the liturgy is celebrated amidst a blaze of light—the electric kind—candlelight is practically useless, a fact which all the more increases its meaning as an integral offering solely for the glory of God. A person consecrates his life not because it’s useful—he or she could be of use as a religious in the missions of course, but utility is not the first reason for one’s decision to follow God closely in poverty, chastity and obedience. One offers himself totally and exclusively (which is precisely what consecrated means) because he loves God, and in this he gives Him glory.
An ideal candle upon the altar is basically silent. Try celebrating Mass with a sputtering candle and you’ll see how annoying that is. The consecrated life is one that does not share the noise of the world: its distractions, its revelries. It is essentially a silent life, one that has been shaped by silence and is lived in silence, one that is not necessarily characterized by pursed and closed lips, but by a heart that listens, which I might say, could qualify as a good definition of what silence is: Silence is the prayerful attitude of the heart that listens.
Finally, no matter how bright the candle may shine with its flame, the time will always come when it will spend all of its wax and burn itself out. This is perhaps one of the greatest characteristics of consecration: sacrifice, through which the person offers everything to God, without keeping anything to oneself. I have never heard of a candle who had decided not to burn itself out; it was made to be that way. The consecrated soul never keeps anything to itself; once offered, it offers everything and never takes it back. This offering, this consecration is precisely that which assures that the candle continues to burn. The sister, the religious brother, the contemplative, the priest, shines as a light to the community, in the heart of the Church, because he gives and holds nothing back.
And what about the flowers? I jokingly commented to some companions that what people actually place on altars and offer to their loved ones where the reproductive organs of plants, something which is totally true, except that we prefer to regard them as flowers, and not as reproductive organs—or structures, whatever. It’s indicative of consecration as well. What does the offering of a flower mean for the plant? Certain death, since without its reproductivity it would surely perish, being incapable of reproducing itself. The meaning of consecration is not lost on the person who offers himself totally to the Lord; in contrast to the plant whose flowers are offered however, the person does not die, nor does his stock decrease and dwindle. On the contrary it increases exponentially. He becomes even more fertile than if he had withheld his fecundity for himself. This would direct our consideration to the truth that everything offered to God generously returns to us a hundredfold, as the Lord Jesus himself had mentioned in his gospel: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters, or father or mother, or children or lands for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:29)
With this reflection, while getting ready to celebrate the feast, just thirty minutes away as of this writing, I doubt that I’ll ever look the same way at the candles and the flowers I see on the altar, and what this says about a life consecrated to God.