St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Leaving early? Light a candle.

After communion, it's very common to find me walking in the rear aisle of the church while holding my six month old daughter.  By this time, she's usually tired, and the walking helps keep her soothed.  I've been doing this for a while- I did the same thing with my son when he was this age.  When you're walking in the back, the number of people who leave right after receiving communion is really noticeable, especially when many of them smile at my daughter and I as they make their way to the door. 

I've accepted the fact that there are always people who will be leaving Mass early.  After all, this has been going on for the past 2,000 years.  Even at the Last Supper, one of the twelve left early (and we know what he had to go do).  

Now I don't think anyone who leaves Mass early is intentionally out to pull a Judas.  Maybe they need to get to work.  Maybe they blocked-in someone else in the parking lot.  Maybe they have to get to the airport, or visit someone in the hospital.  Maybe when they were children their parents always left early, so that's what they do now.  Maybe once they have their "little piece of Jesus" they don't see the need to stay any longer.  Maybe staying 50 minutes out of the hour is the best they can do, and I should just be thankful that they came. 

So leaving early by itself isn't what baffles me; what does is that I've noticed that more and more people are stopping to light a votive candle on their way out.  Lighting a votive candle is quite a nice gesture, but doing it as they leaving Mass early, that's what has me scratching my head a little.

For people that may not be familiar, a votive candle represents a specific intercessory prayer for someone or something.  Most of the time, you'll find racks of votive candles near a crucifix or some saintly image (they are also used to honor or show devotion).  A candle typically burns for at least most of the day, some up to a couple weeks depending on the size.  There's usually a box for a monetary donation nearby, this enables the individual to attach some sacrificial offering to their prayer and help cover the cost of the candle.  (In case you were curious, a box of a dozen 7-day candles is $50.20 plus shipping.)

Votive candles are a time honored tradition.  Since the erection of churches, people would stop in and visit outside of Mass, many times to pray for a specific intention or need.  As people became busier and had less time to visit in church, the custom of lighting a candle to supplement their visit and/or represent their desire to remain came into practice.

Well now it appears that two longtime traditions, leaving early and lighting votive candles, are becoming intertwined.  But should they be?  In my mind, leaving early and lighting a votive candle is like leaving before the movie is over and stopping to get popcorn on the way out.  What's the point of buying over-priced popcorn if you're not going back into the theater?

As Catholics, we are taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, 11).  Everything else, including a votive candle, is secondary.  If you want your prayer to be heard, what better way than to celebrate the entire Mass (including the last 10 minutes).  If you want to honor or show your devotion to Jesus or to someone saintly, why not do so by fully joining in the celebration that gets us a little closer to heaven?  Yes, it may cause you to have to wait in the parking lot, get stuck is some post-liturgical traffic, or be a few minutes late for the next thing; but if its more efficacious than leaving early and lighting a candle, isn't it worth it?

If it is, then good.  If it isn't, then I think my parish is going to have to install more candle racks!

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