Many worship leaders (including this one) love lots of candles to create ambience. Lighting a candle to remember, honor, or pray for another is one of the most common spiritual practices throughout the religious world. And candles are only growing in popularity according to manufacturers. Raise your hand if you gave or received a candle for Christmas.
“Why is there a candle for everything?” asked Anna Kodé of The New York Times in December.
There is indeed a candle for almost every olfactory need: cheese, cinnamon rolls, fresh cut grass, bacon and Gwyneth Paltrow’s private parts. (It sold out quickly on her website which I don’t feel comfortable hyperlinking here.) There are candles promising balance, harmony, self-confidence and sex appeal.
Candles have been part of religious rites for thousands of years in almost every faith tradition. Before electricity, they were utilitarian. Now they are ‘meltable decor.” And in a world that needs to relax, candles offer opportunities for stopping and staring into the flame. They can also burn our houses down, so we need to stay mindfully relaxed.
You can order the Beeswax Magi and Baby Jesus shown here from Etsy although these candles seem like candidates for candles that you never actually light. The imagery of turbans on fire much less a flaming infant is not comforting. And yet someone decided that this particular mold might be inspiring through all Twelve Days of Christmas.
Creating sensory experiences is a common goal for those of us who lead spiritual communities. We are swiftly moving out of the season of handbells to hear, evergreens to smell, twinkling to see, cozy fabrics to touch, and favorite cookies to taste. These are the five senses that Aristotle taught us. But it’s clear that each of those senses are not lone experiences.
A candle feels warm, looks pretty, smells good, crackles ever so slightly, and might even put a specific taste in our mouths. Neuroscientists say that human beings actually have between 22 and 33 different senses including visceral senses (nociceptors) that signal possible disease in our internal organs or motor senses (proprioceptors) that help us move our feet without looking at them. Our senses all work together.
Quite a bit has been written about the importance of Relational Ministry in the 21st Century Church. How we treat each other makes a difference. Building community makes a difference.
And the physical atmosphere we create in church is also essential. How we make each other feel using all our senses is not just about superficial candlelight or soft music. The smells and sights and sounds and everything our other sensory experiences bring to mind give us moments of home and stories and the Holy.
Yes, there’s a candle for everything. Why do we have them in worship experiences? It’s an interesting conversation as we offer opportunities for authentic communion in 2023.
How are church candles connecting us to God and each other? And how are they not? Discuss.
Note: One of the saddest cultural shifts wrought by covid is the loss of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. One of my brothers was a spitter and so some of us have been concerned for decades about this practice.