Why do the Greek Orthodox use so many candles?

Greek Easter is almost upon us so today’s blog post is all about the use and meaning of the candle within the Greek Orthodox church, particularly during this holy season. This article has been written by GWC team member Stacey Papaionannou who is the current President of the American Women’s Organisation of Greece. You can check out Stacey’s blog www.staceyseaside.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @staceymykonos. Thank you Stacey for kindly sharing your article with us!

Why do the Greek Orthodox use so many candles?

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As we are on the approach for Greek Easter, the use of beeswax candles and a burning flame seems to quadruple.  Other faiths use candles but why does it seem to be so much more intense in the Greek Orthodox Church?

The most common action for any devout Greek Orthodox upon entering a church is to light a candle, kiss the icon nearest the candle and make the sign of the cross. It is an automatic response, an act of decorum and reverence paid to honor the sanctity of the church, in much the same way a devout Catholic will touch fingers to holy water and make the sign of the cross and perhaps genuflect.

Usually Orthodox churches only use long, thin candles before icons. These are usually placed in round containers, having either various sockets to hold the candles, or in a container filled with sand, in which the worshippers place their candles. Orthodox churches will usually have a separate place to put candles lit for the departed; Anglican and Roman Catholic churches make no such distinction.

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Icons are used to bring the worshippers into the presence of those who are in heaven, that is, Christ, the Saints, the Virgin Mary and the angels. The Orthodox believe these icons do more than visually remind the viewer of the fact that there are saints in heaven, they believe that these icons act as ‘windows’ into heaven through which we see those saints, Christ and the Virgin Mary. It is for this reason that God the father is traditionally not represented in icons because He has never shown His form to man and therefore man should not try to represent His form in icons. It is because of the connection which these sacred pictures have with their subjects that Orthodox Christians regularly venerate but do not worship the icons, as Orthodox still living on earth greet one another with a kiss of peace, so do they venerate those who have passed on through their icons.

Candles are used extensively throughout the church during services and after. They are viewed as continual, inanimate prayers offered by the candle’s ‘benefactor’ to God or saints usually on behalf of a third party, although they can be offered for any purpose. Candle-stands are placed in front of particularly significant icons throughout Orthodox churches; there is always a central candle burning on behalf of the church as a whole but have room—the narthex– for Orthodox to place candles. In particular candle-stands are placed in front of the four principle icons on the Iconostasis: the icon of Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and the temple’s patron. Candles are not restricted to this usage however, besides being used in processions a candle is kept burning above the Royal Doors in the Iconostasis, candles in a seven-branched candelabrum are burned during services on the altar (following in the footsteps of the seven branched candle-stand in the Old Testament) as well as other candles used at various times in the church year for special purposes.

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According to John Sanidopoulos, author of a multitude of articles on Greek Orthodoxy published on his web site about mystagogy and the church (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/), he sites Saint Simeon of Thessaloniki for 6 symbolic purposes of candles:

-As the candle is pure (made from beeswax) so should our hearts be pure

-As the pure candle is supple so should our souls be supple until we make them straight and firm by following the teachings of the gospel

As the candle burns and mixes to feed the flame, so should our struggle to follow God

-As the burning candle illuminates darkness, so must the light of Christ shine before men

-As a candle gives its own light to illuminate a person in the darkness, so must the light of virtue, love and peace characterize a Christian. The wax that melts symbolizes our love for our fellow man

-As the candle is derived from the pollen of a flower, so should our souls have a sweet scent

 

Sanidopoulos attributes another 6 symbolic reasons for the use of candles as explained by Saint Nikodemus, the Hariogite.

-to glorify God, who is light

-to dissolve the darkness of the night and banish away the fear brought on by darkness

-to manifest the inner joy of our soul

-to bestow honor to the saints of Greek Orthodoxy, imitating the early Christians who lit candles in the tombs of the first martyrs

-to symbolize our good works because God told us to let our light shine

-to have our sins forgiven and burned away, as well as for those who we pray

Sanidopoulos also writes that beyond the higher spiritual reason for lighting the candle, it serves the practical in that the purchase of the candle financially supports the faith.

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During Holy Week the candles take on an even greater significance as they are the major prop during two services—the Good Friday Epitaphio procession and the service of the Anastasi-the resurrection of Christ.  On Good Friday, the devout follow the processional of Christ’s symbolic burial.  Singing the hymn of O Glykia Mou Ear and holding candles, the procession moves out into the streets and makes its way back to the church, where the devout venerate the symbolic burial shroud of Christ adorned by flowers in a wooden container.

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The following day, at the midnight service of Anastasi, the devout go with celebratory candles, to proclaim that Christ is Risen as a darkened church comes to light with the candles, lighting one by one, to proclaim and sing. The flame used for the lighting of the Anastasi candle is delivered prior to Easter from the patriarchy in Istanbul Turkey where it burns as literally an “eternal flame.” The flame is distributed and delivered to all parts of the Orthodox world so this sacred flame can be spread amongst all the Orthodox faithful. The Anastasi candle or the Lambatha has taken on an entire life of its own.  Highly decorated with just about anything or everything, it is common practice that a child’s godparent will purchase a Lambatha for the Resurrection Service or a girl’s beau will provide for it.  Everyone else usually purchases the standard issue, long white candle.  And most will try to carry this light back to their homes, following the Anastasi service, in a small lantern to pass on the sacred blessing of this particular flame—the belief in resurrection from death.

And even in death the flame of a candle plays a role. At most graves in Greece, there is the provision for either a lighted candle or a wick floating in oil to burn continuously in prayer for soul of the departed.

The intensity of use of candles in the Greek Orthodox church is rooted deeply in both symbolism and a hands on approach to embracing the faith.  By igniting the candles wick from another candle you have said a prayer, received light (literally and figuratively) and joined in the community of the faithful.  Something to think about the next time you light a candle.

By Stacey Harris-Papaioannou

staceymykonos@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. 23rd April 2016 / 1:20 pm

    One important addition and correction concerning the flame of Anastasi:
    The flame used for the lighting of the Anastasi candle is delivered prior to Easter, from the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, to the patriarchy in Istanbul Turkey, where it burns as literally an “eternal flame.”

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