Gospel Candle

The questions in this post are not rhetorical.

And, yes, for those who think that liturgy and the study of liturgy is akin to stamp collecting or cigar-band collecting, this post can be another piece of evidence about liturgy’s esoteric irrelevance. It doesn’t hurt to have the occasional lighter (see what I did there!) post amongst the others!

Now to the blog post:

Regular readers here will know that I am at the end of the spectrum that sees a lot of worship and religious activities and rules originating in what, at the time, was a comprehensible action and then later it was given a “spiritual” or allegorical interpretation and often continued beyond the sensible life of the action because of the interpretation.

The analysis of this process is described well by the following story:

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.

After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.

Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

From Anthony De Mello, The Song of the Bird

There was a recent discussion online joking about the lighting-of-candles-in-church tradition: two candles are lit from South to North, and extinguished from North to South. From a sensible approach, this makes little sense: rather than having a system where both candles burn the same amount of time, one candle is always left to burn longer than the other.

The allegorisation is around the north side being the “Gospel” side, and then declaring a mnemonic: “The Gospel candle never burns alone”
(more here and here). But, the mnemonic is not the origin of the practice.

What is the practical origin of this widespread practice?

The best I can come up with is a completely imagined scenario: most vestries (sacristies) were on the south of the church building; the server came in, hence, from the South, lit the first candle, moved across and lit the second candle (on the North) and stayed there for most of the service; at the end, the server doused the candle on the North then the one on the South and continued back into the vestry (sacristy).

Is there evidence for such a hypothesis? Or is there evidence that the above paragraph is false? Is there an alternative origin hypothesis?

In images, yes – I can find some pictures of the server primarily on the north side with two candles. More abundant, are images with six candles and the server on the south side or with two servers.

Your responses hoped for in the comments…

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