by Father Arthur Tonne, 1950’s
“It was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world.”
St. John, 1:9.
The story of Erna Bilkau and her so-called Mystic Candles is a tragic yet triumphant one. Born in Russia, she moved to Germany, where she married a German boy. They honeymooned in America, learning to love the land of hope and freedom. Back in Germany she was separated a few years later from her husband by the war.
With her two-year-old son she fled to America. She was making a modest living for herself and her son when he suddenly became seriously ill and passed away at the age of thirteen.
The shock almost drove the mother insane. For months she walked the streets every night, peeking with aching agony into homes where there were children. Friends tried to console her. To no avail.
At last she took refuge with God. She knelt by her bed, and with folded hands asked the Almighty to assist her. Peace and courage came with her prayer. She put up a crudely constructed altar to the memory of her dead boy, and put upon it two lighted candles.
They seemed to give her new hope.
The candles, however, burned down too quickly. She recalled some secrets of candle-making learned from her father. She experimented until she developed a candle that would burn down the center and not burn the outer shell. It gave off a strange mystical glow. She called them her Mystic Candles.
A young couple across the street accepted a few of the candles and found in them the courage to make up the differences that were slowly driving them to divorce. Others wanted candles like them. Others found peace and quiet and courage in having those candles in their homes.
She was swamped with orders. A thriving business developed. In this work she found a release from her overwhelming grief. Today thousands find inspiration and help in the Mystic Candles of Erna Bilkau, the mother who lost a son.
Inspiring as this story may be, it pales before the ageless, world-wide story of the Catholic candle, which you see glowing upon our altars, which you see in every sacrament except Confession.
Allow me to point out that the candle is one of the oldest and most widely used sacramentals in the Church. It is one of the richest religious symbols or instruments used to express spiritual ideas. What does the candle mean? Why do we use them?
The wax, produced by virgin worker bees, is a beautiful figure of the pure body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. The wick represents the soul of Christ; the flame represents His divinity, the fact that He was God. The lighted candle reminds us of Christ’s gospel, the Holy Bible, which dispels the darkness of sin and ignorance; the lighted candle also stands for the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth.
For the individual Christian the candle’s flame means the faith that makes us “children of the light”; its warmth and heat show us the fiery tongues of Pentecost, “which does not consume but enlightens.”
When given to the Church, candles signify Christian self-sacrifice.
As the burning taper consumes itself, so the Christian should burn up his energies in serving God.
Light is one of the most fitting and appropriate symbols of God, who is absolutely pure light. Light is pure in itself; light penetrates long distances and into farthest corners; light moves with unbelievable speed; light awakens and nourishes life in the organic kingdom; light brightens with its brilliance all that comes within its influence.
- Holy Scripture makes frequent use of this symbolic meaning:
a.The wisdom of the Son is spoken of as “the brightness of his glory.” Hebrews 1:3.
b.And the psalmist exclaims: “Thou art clothed with light as with a garment.” Psalm 103:2.
- Light also represents the mission of our divine Lord upon earth. The prophet Isaias (9:2) calls Christ a great light and foretells that “to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death light is risen.” The saintly Simeon declared that He is “a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” To this St. John added that Christ “was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world.” St. John, 1:9.
And Christ says of Himself, “I am the light of the world.” St. John, 8:12.
- Lights are also symbols of respect. They are used on occasions when we wish to show more than ordinary deference to distinguished personages or to holy things. Even the pagans used lights to show honor to their gods and to prominent personages.
The Catholic Church uses blessed beeswax candles at the administration of all the sacraments that are given publicly, except Confession and in private Baptism, when only water is available. She uses them at Mass and Benediction and in other church services like blessings and processions. She gives a lighted candle to the newly baptized with these solemn words:
“Receive this burning light so as to keep thy Baptism without blame. Keep the commandments of God, so that when our Lord shall come to His nuptials thou mayest meet Him together with all the saints….”
And when that Christian is dying we place a candle in his hand. It is not that we need their light, although in the early centuries that was their practical use, in the catacombs, in the caves and underground passages where the first Catholics had to conduct their services.
Mother Church has a higher and a deeper reason than that. She uses every possible means for raising our minds to heaven.
Among the sacramentals the candle is outstanding. We love to look at a candle and see in its soft white wax the pure flesh of our Infant Savior. We see the wick penetrating the wax, and representing the soul of Christ.
Let our candles be true spiritual inspirations to us, even more than the candles of Erna Bilkau were to her friends. Have them in your home. Use them in times peaceful and times perturbed. They represent the true light of the world. Amen.
“The difference between this child and that one is often largely a matter of what he saw in and heard from his parents. His religious response, his sense of honesty, his ability to play with other children and be unselfish toward them, his attitude toward books, his appreciation of the beautiful, his sense of what is right and what is wrong, his quick apprehending of the charming and noble, his ready reaction to music that is good, his approval of heroism and his rejection of evil and cheapness – all these things need to be established in the child’s mind by the parents, who alone can deeply and strong-rootedly establish them!” – Fr. Daniel A. Lord, 1950’s
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