“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
– John 8:12
As a child, I recall my mother lighting a little votive candle every Tuesday night, as part of her perpetual novena in honour of Saint Martha. That candle burned brightly and silently every week for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that even now, I constantly burn a candle within a small votive lamp on my altar at home.
The candle is a very significant thing when placed in a Catholic context. It is also ubiquitous – in every Catholic Church, you will find candles burning. Many of these are near the altars in honour of the Sacred Heart and of Our Blessed Lady – whether tea-lights or tapers, their soft and gentle light illumines the Church long after the person lighting it has gone. It is as though the light is itself the echo of the prayers being offered there. And that is the whole point of the candle – it symbolises something far deeper than itself.
The most important candle of all – the Paschal Candle aside – is the Sanctuary Lamp. This glowing red lamp, always found near the Tabernacle in the Catholic Church, is the sign of something mystical, deep, profound and unique to the Catholic Faith – the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle, under the appearance of Bread. This particular candle tells us that He is with us, right there, right now.
In the Gospels, the Lord tells us that He is ‘the Light of the world’. He means this both metaphorically and literally. He alone can illuminate the darkness of our world, dispelling the shadows which cover it, providing it with His own light; and in following that Divine Light, we have the light of life.
The Divine Mercy Image also features this sense of light.
The original Image, often referred to as ‘the Vilnius Image’, is the one which was painted under the explicit direction of Saint Faustina, and the only Divine Mercy Image she ever saw during her life. In this Image, the background is dark and foreboding. Out of that darkness, the figure of the Merciful Lord seems to be walking toward us, almost as though He might come right out of the painting. Some time ago, elsewhere on this site, I wrote about this symbolism of the illuminating Christ coming out of the darkness –
“In the Jewish tradition, the Holy of Holies was the most sacred of places, found in the innermost part of the Temple, beyond the Holy Place. In it was found the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments as given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The lid of the Ark was made of pure gold and was called the Mercy Seat. The Holy of Holies was separated from the remainder of the Temple and from the Holy Place by the Veil of the Temple. It was considered to be the place where God resided, His glory having entered there. The light of the glory of God was the only light in the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was so sacred that only the High Priest was allowed to enter there, and only on one day of the year – the Day Of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur.
The Day Of Atonement was a day or repentance and atonement and it fell at the end of the Days Of Awe. The Jewish people would offer prayers of forgiveness for their sins against God and against each other. During the Days Of Awe, God would inscribe the names of the people in the Book of Life and on the Day Of Atonement, the verdict would be sealed as to whether or not their names remained inscribed there.
To prepare for this Day of Atonement, the High Priest had to be properly prepared and sanctified. He would remove his usual ornate robes, replacing these with a simple garment of white linen, tied at the waist. Entering the most holy place, he would sprinkle the blood of sacrificial animals (a goat and a bull) upon the Mercy Seat and beg the forgiveness of the Almighty and Holy God, in his name and in the name of all the people.
Throughout the Gospels and the New Testament, the Person of Jesus is represented as the personification of the Holy of Holies – He is the spotless lamb, slain to take away the sins of the world. His Death on the Cross is the moment at which the Veil of the Temple is torn in two. And at the moment of His death upon the Cross, the lance of the soldier opens the Wound in His Sacred Heart, from which Blood and Water flows forth; this Heart is the Source or Fountain of all mercy and grace.
He is the fulfilment and completion of the Old Law, and He is the institution of the new and eternal Covenant. He is both the High Priest and the Sacrifice.
He alone stands between the Eternal Father and mankind – now, the Father sees mankind only through the Wounds of the Crucified, His Son, Whose death atones for the sins of the world. He is the reparation and atonement of the Day Of Atonement.”
Perhaps the next time we light a small votive candle at home, or we gaze upon the flickering candles or the Sanctuary Lamp in Church, we might take a moment to contemplate this Merciful Lord, the Holy One, our atonement, represented by that little light.