Where do the candles go in a procession?

Worship is not a DIY affair; we can all come up with ways to make it more interesting or “meaningful”, but that is not our place, for we receive it from the Church and her tradition. In recent years, of course, there has also been the question of liturgical continuity: in light of the rediscovery of our tradition through developments like Summorum Pontificum, which clarified that the older books may also be used and were never abrogated, many priests and concerned laypeople are striving for that “mutual enrichment” of the sacred liturgy, of which Pope Benedict wrote.

One detail, in particular, that more recently came to my attention, concerned the order of the liturgical procession (in and out of Holy Mass, for example). I’ve seen in many places where, if there is no incense, the processional cross is the first thing carried in a procession. (Whenever there is incense, it goes first.) There is a certain logic to this order: the cross is our “royal standard“; we preach Christ crucified. “Lift high the cross…”; etc.

Old illustrations, like the one above, however, call that idea into question. Here, also, is a photo of some contemporary Vatican ceremonial, showing the candles just ahead of the cross:

An article I recently read from a liturgical scholar, Msgr. Marc Caron, helps us to understand the traditional Roman practice in this regard. Here are a couple of excerpts, with my commentary:

Two servers holding candles lead the procession, walking side by side. An instituted acolyte or another server may hold the processional cross between them, walking with the candle bearers side by side in one line. It is not traditional for the candle bearers to walk several paces behind the processional cross since their purpose is to the light the way for the procession. If the pathway of the procession becomes too narrow for the three servers to walk side by side, the candle bearers walk ahead of the cross for as long as needed since their purpose is to light the way for everyone following them. [my emphases]

Although most of our churches today are well-lit, we can think of the old churches in Europe, lit only by natural light and often quite shadowy. Before the advent of electricity, candles had a real function beyond merely symbolizing the light of Christ in the sacred liturgy: to help the ministers see what they were doing. One liturgical manual I have (I think the Tremolini) notes how a priest may have a candle near the Missal in order to be able to read the prayers — noting carefully that it should not be in the same form as a similar candle used by a bishop for that purpose (called a Bugia)!

Msgr. Caron continues:

If a sufficient number of servers is not available, it is possible to omit the processional cross and retain the two processional candles. In fact, this was formerly the common practice at any solemn Mass celebrated by a priest. Historically, the use of the processional cross was reserved for Masses celebrated by a bishop or to Masses celebrated by a priest which involved some kind of special procession as on Palm Sunday or at a funeral. [my emphasis]

Here again we see that the traditional Roman practice may run a bit counter-intuitive to how we think today about the primacy of the cross in a liturgical procession. I’ve often seen it happen that when there is not the proper number of servers on hand, the candles are omitted entirely in the procession — only the cross is carried in. But again, following the principle that the candles light the way, it makes more sense to retain them and to omit the cross when necessary due to low number of servers.

It’s interesting to note that, where there is the space, the candles walk beside the cross. If not, slightly ahead. The latter will be more common in most of our churches, with a central aisle just narrow enough to make it difficult for three altar boys to walk side-by-side while carrying things. Also, honor guards (as those provided by the Knights of Columbus on occasion) further narrow the aisle for some liturgies.

This imagery of lighting the way is really quite a lovely detail from our tradition. Even if we don’t need candlelight to see where we are going now, the symbolism still remains. Our processions proclaim the entrance of Christ into the holy sanctuary: yet he also “goes before us” (Matthew 26:32) and meets us as we arrive. He is the principal actor in our worship, offering himself to the Father for our salvation. We take part in that action, each in different ways, according to our state. And this is another reason why it’s so good for us to recover our traditions rather than making things up: because it’s not about us, but about Christ, who established his Church to extend his incarnation through time, until we go to take our part in the heavenly liturgy.

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