What does a person do first upon entering an Orthodox Church? Yes, the sign of the cross is made. Yes, the Christian reverences, (honors with a kiss and a bow), before the Icon of Christ, the Festal Icon of that Day/Season, and the Icon of Mary the Mother of God. Next, he goes to the candles. In some churches the candles burn in the entry way to the building in front of Icons, and in some churches (like ours) there are two golden candle stands (like the one pictured above) that stand in front of the Iconostasis which is the portal that opens up to the altar in the sanctuary. Our practice of Christianity, our involvement in its ritual, begins with a little beeswax candle. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church in which candles are not lit. Imagine. From the work of God’s creation, a byproduct of bees, comes an instrument of beauty. Bees, created by God Himself, create wax, and through the hands of men and women, this wax is transformed into an object of holiness and worship.
The candle is lit in faith. as a prayer. The light of one candle, of one prayer, of one person, is then joined with the many prayers and the many candles of many others. Remember, we are damned in isolation, and we are saved together, in community.
In a certain way, the candle reflects the two natures of Christ – Divine and Human. The wick represents the Divine Essence of His nature, the wick is the heart and soul, and the life of the candle. It is that which is ignited and its function is to transmit and radiate light and thus it overcomes and defeats darkness. The beeswax, represents His human nature. The honey sweet smelling wax is that which is corporal, it is organic, of this earth – and the wax gives energy and fuel to the wick and the fire. The wax burns and offers itself to the Divine so that light might shine in all things.
Here is a fine excerpt taken from the book entitled: Fundamentals of Orthodoxy
Candles appeared in all Orthodox churches in the first centuries of our era. Eusebius of Caesarea records that during the Paschal (Easter) vigil such a quantity of candles were lit by the faithful that the night itself became as day. There were wax candles the sizes of which made them look like actual pillars. In answer to the accusations of the schismatic Vigilantius who berated the Orthodox for lighting candles in their churches during daylight, St. Jerome (342-420) replied “In all Eastern Churches candles are lit during the reading of the Gospel not only so as to shed light and dispel the gloom but also to proclaim one’s joy.”
Over the centuries, the Orthodox candle has burnt gently and humbly and is now, as it was then, imbued with profound meaning, inalienable from our Orthodox divine services and Orthodox piety. Apart from the fact that the small sacrifice, the mite given by each Christian for the candle he lights, benefits the Church in real terms, by lighting a candle, each Christian enters into closer contact with the church and the service, participating in it more actively and invisibly warming his soul by the visible light of the candle. We must understand that man’s immortal soul dwells in man’s mortal body. The immortal soul cannot be indifferent to pious deeds committed by the body which is its home. As the body bows in reverence, so does the soul bow with it and learns to grow obedient. We are human; we need to see, to feel, to smell and to hear. And in the church, candles burn with the Divine Light, the ringing of the bells sanctifies the air, incense reminds us of the fragrance of prayers; and from each Icon the Saviour Himself, the Mother of God and all the saints mysteriously look at us and we look at their holy images as two worlds come face to face. The dwellers of the Kingdom of God, and we, the sinners….who have come to pray and worship.