Liturgy Lines: Get Real!

by Elizabeth Harrington. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on Sept. 8th, 2016.

It is becoming more common in churches for electric ‘push-button’ bulbs to be used instead of votive candles and oil wicks inside plastic tubes in place of real altar candles, no doubt because they always look new and they don’t drip wax on the altar cloth.

Part of the symbolism of candles, however, is that they burn down, giving us a sense of time passing, of the cycles of the liturgical year, of all the baptisms and funerals that have been celebrated whilst the wax has melted. The burning wax candle symbolises the paschal mystery for, in giving light, it consumes itself, just as Christ gave life through his death.

The worshipping environment reminds us of the paschal mystery of life, death and resurrection. That is why artificial flowers are not suitable for churches. Part of the symbolism of fresh flowers lies in the fact that they fade and die and that we need to appreciate their beauty while it lasts.

If symbols are not real, they are not honest. No artificial plant ever really passes for a real one, just as pressed hosts don’t really remind people of real bread.

The primary liturgical symbols are not decorative accoutrements but are present to support our ritual prayer. They must take priority over everything else in the worship space and anything added to the environment should point towards these symbols, not away from them.

The 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes several references to the importance of authenticity and quality in regard to objects used in liturgy, for example “The meaning of the sign demands that the bread for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food.” (#321)

Pressed hosts do not honestly look like real food. Disposable service booklets or sheets of paper are not worthy vehicles for the word of God, which lasts forever!

The document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship issued by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy contains some good advice about the use of symbols in liturgy. “Every word, gesture, movement, object and appointment must be real in the sense that it is our own. It must come from the deepest understanding of ourselves – not careless, phoney, counterfeit, pretentious, exaggerated, etc.” (EAW #14)

The twin requirements of quality and appropriateness rule out “anything trivial and self-centred, anything fake, cheap or shoddy, pretentious or superficial”. (EAW #22)

The keys to the use of symbol and environment that supports ritual are: highlight the primary symbols, use real rather than synthetic materials, and aim to acquire the best quality objects and most beautiful symbols the community can afford.

The quality and permanence of liturgical symbols must reflect our belief that “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #7)  Anything less is unsuited to the sacredness of the liturgy.

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website.


  1. I’ve never been much bothered by using pressed unleavened communion wafers, but I heartily agree with everything else written here. Faux candles, disposable pew missals, and (dare I say it?) cheap looking vestments or altar linens have long bothered me. One doesn’t have to spend a small fortune at Almy’s to have well made things.

    I’d even be fine with an oil lamp that looked like an oil lamp. We are, after all, waiting for the Bridegroom. But an oil lamp made to look like a candle? Bah!

  2. Can we add to the list a myriad of gold-colored metal service vessels that are “mandated for use” as opposed to worthy pieces of art in ceramic and crystal, which are mass-produced from cheap base elements, have nothing precious about them, and get their color from shellac? (And which are probably worth less than a tenth of their asking price? And which last about two years before needing “re-plating?”)

  3. In this case, I am confused.
    Aren’t candles as synthetic as electric lights? A century ago, candles and gas lights were probably still the familiar form in which indoor lighting was accomplished. But today? How many people today have ever used candles to light their home, except in an emergency?
    Much of what is cited ostensibly in support of candles actually is against it. It is candles that are “careless, phoney, counterfeit, pretentious, exaggerated, etc.” It is electric lights that are real to most of us, not candles. Candles are cheap, shoddy sources of light, unlike led bulbs. Their shoddiness is even turned into a virtue, “they burn down, giving us a sense of time passing.” Isn’t this the definition of shoddy, that it doesn’t last or do as good a job? Maybe we need to substitute little clocks for the candles?
    But if we want to represent light, electric lights are more real, more authentic, than candles. Neither is particularly natural, since both are synthesized from light capable materials. Oil lamps are similarly synthetic, but at least they have resonances in Scripture.

    1. I would say that the vast majority of people do not view candles as cheap and shoddy because most people do not think of them as purely functional objects anymore – even outside of church, candles now hold a place in the collective consciousness as indicating love, prayer, devotion, closeness, warmth, the fleeting nature of life, and intimacy. When tragedy strikes, people hold candle light vigils. When someone wants to have an intimate dinner and show they care, candle light is a classic standby. Candles no longer have their original function, but instead have a different function which is more symbolic. It isn’t that candles are “less synthetic” than electric lights as a primary light source, it is that they are “less synthetic” for the symbolic function they now hold both in and outside of church.

      And there’s also the saying “the medium is the message.” Florescent and led lights might “represent light,” but do so in a cold institutional sort of way unless they are made to look like light sources people consider warm and inviting. Perhaps this will someday shift – “Edison” bulbs have now crossed over from being purely functional to being seen as special, warm, and artistic (and manufacturers now make led bulbs that ape the look).

    2. You know, I just haven’t seen many people keeping vigil after a tragedy opting for led bulbs- candles and cell phones, yes.

    3. “But if we want to represent light, electric lights are more real, more authentic, than candles. ”

      I think you are confusing or conflating real/authentic with quotidian. A candle will burn your flesh like fire in a way an LED won’t. It captures that dual nature of light – both life-giving and potentially life-threatening if used carelessly – better.

  4. It’s possible people are switching candles because of insurance. Our insurance hasn’t come for our candles yet, but they’re come for our Advent and Christmas evergreens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *