The Long, Bright History of Prayer Candles

The Christian tradition of incorporating fire into worship dates back to the Old Testament. Perhaps this ancient practice can help us in modern times, too.

At CORDA Candles, Anna Camacho, its founder and owner, makes candles with the intent to bridge the sacred and the secular, to bring faith into everyday moments. I talked with Camacho about how fire is used to represent God and how candles can draw people into God’s presence.

Camacho’s craft is inspired by her faith, and it’s clear why: You can tell that she is passionate about how people experience the presence of God. Her work seeks to encourage that. She explained that there is a deep, powerful tradition of praying with fire.

In Scripture

Incorporating fire into worship is rooted in Scripture. When God led the Israelites as a pillar of fire by night, the dancing flame was forever linked to God’s holy presence. This theme emerges over and over, as God comes to Moses in a burning bush and Elijah calls on “the fire of the Lord” to light the altar (Ex 3:1–17; 1 Kings 18:37–38).

In Exodus 25–31, God instructs Moses to make a sanctuary for God’s presence to dwell. God says, “Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex 25:9). Those tabernacle designs included very specific commands. God dictated what type of oil should be used and how long the lamps should burn (Ex 27:20–21). The priests were tasked with keeping the fires burning all night. In this way, light served both a practical and a spiritual purpose. The burning fires lit up the windowless room at night and reminded the people of God’s presence there.

Camacho referenced Psalm 141:2 when she mentioned how praying with fire can remind us that “our prayers rise like incense before the Lord.” The visual of smoke rising up to God is a powerful reminder that God hears our prayers.

Themes of fire and light carried into the New Testament take on a new meaning with the coming of Christ. Jesus called himself the light of the world and promised, “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Camacho said she likes to remind people that this connection should not be lost to us: “Jesus also tells us that we are the light of the world, because we are called to bring him to others.”

In Early Church History

Candles have been discovered at the tombs of saints dating back to the 200s. Anastasius, an Eastern Roman Emperor, recorded that Constantine provided ornate lamps for St. Peter’s tomb in the third century. Just like the tabernacle, having candles in tombs had both practical and spiritual implications.

Many of these tombs were in underground cemeteries called catacombs. During times of persecution, early Christians found some measure of safety in those hidden places. The walls of the catacombs bear witness to the believers’ desire to express their faith in a tangible way. One common symbol carved on the walls was the outline of a fish with the Greek word ichthus inside, an acrostic meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.  So candles were needed for light in those underground rooms, but they also illuminated the symbols of the faith found on the walls. Thus they served a dual purpose of both providing light and reminding the believer of God’s presence there.

Evidence shows the use of candles alongside sacred images by the 300s. And Paulinus of Nola described lights around the altar and an eternal lamp used at churches in the early 400s. Candles were more than just a practical source of light. In the early church period, they were becoming sacred images and holy reminders of God’s presence.

In Modern Usage

“Once you start thinking about how candles are used in the church, you’ll start seeing them everywhere,” Camacho said.

Many churches incorporate fire into their worship ceremonies for a variety of reasons. The fire may be used to remind people that God’s presence dwells there. For example, Catholics light a candle when the blessed sacrament is in the tabernacle, and Lutherans have sanctuary lamps near the altar.

Episcopalians and other traditions use a paschal candle in the Easter season to symbolize the risen Christ. The candle is lit at the Easter vigil as the deacon says, “The light of Christ,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God.” Then the paschal candle is used to light the congregations’ individual candles. In this movement, the church symbolizes the light of Christ spread to all of God’s people.

In Personal Prayer 

What does this history mean for today? I asked Camacho, and she had some helpful insights. She suggested lighting a candle to start your personal prayer time.

Camacho suggested, if you don’t know how to begin, you can start with looking at the flame and meditating on Christ as the light of the world. This will naturally lead you into a time of gratitude for all the ways Jesus has brought light to your life. Then, you can bring to mind people you want to pray for and ask for the light of God’s love to shine on them. You can end the prayer time by blowing out the candle and saying to the Lord, “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Ps 141:2).

“Taking a moment to stop and light the candle and strike the match is very intentional,” Camacho said. It helps you “take a break from the busyness of the day and … centers you, slows you down, and lets you enter into a place of peace.” When used consistently, this candle-lighting habit can signal to your body and mind that your prayer time is holy. In this way, the candle unites a physical action with a spiritual intention.

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