Stepping into the Church’s ancient history of votive offering
When was the last time you went to the Grotto? The last time you went, did you light a candle and say a prayer? In all likelihood you did, and so did the person before you. And the person before that, and the person before that, and so on. If we continue this regression, we will go back quite a long time, perhaps all the way back to the Grotto’s construction in 1896. Yet the candles at the Grotto participate in an older tradition which far predates the founding of the University. By how far? 100 years? 1000 years? 2000 years? More?
The answer is further back than our written sources can actually take us. What you are participating in at the Grotto is a form of votive offering, or the offering of an object in petition or thanksgiving to the Divine. Votive offerings are not unique to Judeo-Christianity, as the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope notes that in ancient Greece there were rather large numbers of votive offerings (Laertius, II.59). Yet some of the earliest written accounts are in Leviticus, in which the Israelites offer burnt (or votive) offerings as a sign of devotion: “If a person’s offering is a burnt offering from the herd, the offering must be a male without blemish. The individual shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to find favor with the LORD” (Leviticus 1:3). This type of votive offering was commonly practiced in ancient Judaism for at least the five hundred years preceding Christ’s birth.
Limited sources exist that discuss the use of votive candles in the Early Church. Eusebius, an early Church historian, mentions the use of both votive offerings and candles in the Life of Saint Constantine (quoted from Newman 8, 6). One of the oldest and most detailed descriptions of early candle use is in Saint Jerome’s Contra Vigilantium from the late fourth century. Saint Jerome defends the use of candles in Divine Liturgy as a valid expression of fidelity and joy in the Gospel message, although it is not an explicit reference to votive candles.
The oldest text documenting the use of candles specifically as votive offerings is from Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople in the early eighth century, who asked that “it not scandalize some, that lights are before the sacred icons and sweet perfumes. For such rites have been devised to their honor” (quoted from Labbe, 1971-72). When Germanus wrote this in the early eighth century, it is likely that this was already considered an old practice, although the exact dating of the first Christian use of votive candles is still debated.
The practice of votive candles remained a popular practice throughout the Middle Ages. Thomas of Celano’s Vita Prima Sancti Francisci, the first written biography of St. Francis, relates the tale of a young boy, stricken with leprosy, whose father commanded him, “Arise, my son, and dedicate yourself to blessed Francis, and when you have been given deliverance, you shall bring a candle of your own measurements, every year, as long as you live.” Votive offerings became reflective of a “[consecration ] … in all ways” to a saintly figure (Vita Prima Sancti Francisci, III.5.146). By the 13th century, the candle became a literal image of self-sacrifice and offering, the flame of prayer melting away at the physical wax, sealing one’s petition and commending it to the will of God.
From the medieval period to today, the meaning and practice of votive candles has been longstanding and remarkably continuous within Catholic tradition. This consistency is a testament to its devotional power, both as a symbol and as a form of self-offering. When you light a candle at the Grotto, you participate in an ancient form of religious expression whose heritage can be traced to Classical Greece and Biblical Judaism. By lighting a votive candle, you offer your prayers to God and join your brethren of the historical Church in an act of petition and thanksgiving. Just as candles are consumed by flames, we offer a piece of ourselves every time we light a candle at the Grotto.
Go forth and share the Good News.
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