When I was a young boy, I used to attend the church of St Peter and St Paul in Wantage, Oxfordshire. This particular church was a bastion of the ‘Oxford Movement’. It was, and might well still be, an example of the highest of High Church Anglicanism. During the six years that I attended, I developed love for hymn number 390 (Let all mortal flesh keep silence) and a penchant for praying near candles.
My love for Christ and commitment to Him came a few years after I left.
But, back to candles. I had heard that candles lit during or just after prayer are referred to as ‘votive’. I was interested to discover the meaning of the word. I learned that ‘votive’ refers to a sacrificial offering made to a deity or The Deity; there is no intention of reusing or recovering this offering. Over the millennia, people have offered statues, livestock, food, incense, coins, weapons, armour, pots, pans, cutlery and candles – to name just a few items. These gifts have been tossed into sacred streams, left at shrines or burned.
When I sit to pray I sometimes light a candle. If I’m praying in a church setting, my candle frequently joins several others burning in a votive candle rack. Each candle represents a moment of prayer and, perhaps, a desire that a petition will continue to be lifted to God long after the person praying has left the building.
I light a candle for the most simplistic reasons: they make me feel peaceful and prayerful, and I like the look of them.
This leads me to the broken candle. At a local church where I love to pray, I saw something very unusual. Someone had lit a votive candle and someone else had snuffed it out, mid-way through doing its job of burning up. I lit my fresh, new candle and popped it elsewhere on the rack. I left after a while. Each day that I returned, the half-burned candle sat in the rack. I was tempted to light it with my own, but didn’t.
Last week, I went in to pray and the candle was broken and laying down next to its holder. My guess is that someone had bumped into it, knocked it to the ground, snapping it, and then put it back onto the rack. I pointed it out to the minister of the church as we chatted after a prayer meeting and she said she’d throw it in the bin. For some reason, I asked her not to and said that I would light it the next day when I returned to pray.
So it was that I found myself on Saturday 25th October 2014 trying and failing to stick a candle together and, finally, balancing it in the votive rack and lighting it. It burned wonky, but it burned up.
I sat down to pray. During that time of prayer, the simple symbolism of the broken candle started to occur to me. The votive candle is called upon to be sacrificed and burned. Brokenness did not prevent sacrifice.
As Christians we are called to be a living sacrifice. Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:1) makes the following entreaty:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
What broken things we are. How often we question God’s wisdom in calling us to His service. And yet, we are called by Him to be living sacrifices, and brokenness does not prevent sacrifice.