Monday, June 28, 2021

Piously Discarding Blessed Wax: A Quodlibetal Question

One of the small but still significant changes in my life as a Roman Catholic occurred when I moved to a place where my parish was, for the first time, a dedicated old-rite parish. Although I had participated at other times in usus antiquior liturgies that involved solemn blessings, the people in attendance were not accustomed to life in the midst of such blessings, and the clergy did not think of encouraging the faithful to bring heaps of herbs or wine or water or candles, etc., to be specially blessed. In other words, we did the blessings, but they had not yet spilled over into everyday life. At traditional parishes, on the other hand, the community looks forward to these days, the bulletin reminds everyone of them, and sure enough, families arrive bearing baskets or boxes of items to be blessed. Case in point: Candlemas. Once you read the potent blessing of candles that takes place on February 2nd in the usus antiquior, you want to bring a supply of candles and get them blessed.

However, everyone knows what happens with votive candles, tea-lights, and even tapers: they burn down to a certain point, and then the wick is no more, leaving a chunk of wax residue. Depending on how well or poorly a given candle has burned, there can be a decent amount of leftover wax. For a short time, I was throwing away the remainders, but then I began to have qualms about discarding the wax of candles that had been solemnly blessed. So I asked four theologically astute priests for their opinions on what should be done with these scraps. I was intrigued to receive four answers that overlapped in some ways and diverged greatly in others. Here are the first three:

1. The grave danger of disposing of blessed items, fundamentally, is that they may fall into the hands of those who would use them for the occult or other blasphemous purposes. There’s probably little chance of this in the case of candle hubs. Still, out of an abundance of caution, one could bury them or cast them into a “holy fire.” I do not know if maybe houses of religious sisters would be grateful to receive the remnant to melt back into new candles?

2. Your instincts are right and Catholic! Once something is blessed, it should not be simply discarded with the trash. So from time to time I suggest you make a bonfire in your backyard, and throw the tealights on to it. The waxy residue will burn away, and you can then throw the probably blackened and crumpled aluminum containers into the trash. Sed contra: Beware of scrupulosity!

3. The blessing is for a candle, not the wax. When the object no longer can be considered a candle (e.g. it is a molten mass of wax), it has lost its blessing. Remember that if an altar or church is damaged beyond the point where it can function as what it is, it loses its consecration and would have to be reconsecrated upon rebuilding. What was a candle, if it can no longer serve as a candle, is a candle no more.

The tension between the first two answers and the third prompted me to pose it as a “quodlibetal question” to an English Dominican Thomist, who sent me the following thorough reply, which I now share with readers, as I believe he has offered the definitive answer.

A side table with candles brought by the faithful to be blessed
Respondeo dicendum quod: a thing is a sacramental when it has been blessed for the purpose of signifying some holy thing, so that it may dispose the one who uses it rightly to a greater union with God.

“Now a thing of this kind may signify in two ways, namely in virtue of its substance or in virtue of some accident. In virtue of its substance indeed when this substance is also used in the worship of the Church, for example as the matter of some sacrament; hence the faithful are wont to make use of holy water and blessed oil, even though these are not blessed with the blessing received by baptismal water or by the sacramental oils. A thing is apt to signify in virtue of some accident when by its shape or colour or something of that kind it takes on a resemblance to Christ or to His Cross or to one of the saints.

“Now wax is used by the Church in her sacred rites, not indeed as the matter of some sacrament, but to provide an illumination to accompany her rites in honour of Christ the true light by whom our minds are enlightened in these rites themselves, and therefore it is a substance apt to be used by the faithful in their private exercises of piety, since He is present also to the faithful when they pray to the Father in secret.

“However, that the wax is shaped in a certain fashion, for example as a cylinder or something of that kind, is done not for the sake of signifying something holy, but only on account of a certain utility, namely, that the wick may be elevated and use up the wax efficiently and thus illuminate more widely and for a longer time. Hence it follows that the loss of the form of a candle does not remove the blessing from the wax; whence in the blessing of candles we do not ask that a ‘candle’ be blessed but that ‘a creature of wax’ be blessed.

“Therefore the wax that remains when a candle has been burnt should not be discarded with other off-casts, just as neither should other sacramentals such as scapulars and rosaries, and this not only lest they fall into the hands of unbelievers for mockery but also because they have in a certain way been raised above other creatures by the Church’s bidding. Rather, this wax should be resolved into its elements by means of fire, or left to decay upon the earth.

“However, if what remains is of some notable quantity, then it may even be sent to a guild of artisans or to holy women in order that they may use it to fashion new candles. Nor does it matter if the same portion of wax in consequence be blessed a second time or even more often; just as we ourselves bless our body with holy water repeatedly, even within a single day.

“Hence the reply to the objections is clear.”

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