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The Paschal Candle
THE EASTER CANDLE
Of all the visible symbols of Easter, the Easter or paschal candle is by far the most important. It has been used at least since the year 520 when Bishop Ennodius of Pavia composed two blessings for the candle, but it did not appear in Rome for many centuries after this.
The Spanish rite which includes the blessing of both a lamp and the Easter candle goes as far back as 633. The practice of inserting five grains of incense and having the deacon carry the candle in the procession are mentioned in the Ambrosian rite in the twelfth century. The custom of decorating the paschal candle with flowers and inscriptions, including the date, first appeared in England. At Westminster Abbey, the candle used in 1557 weighed 300 pounds (nearly 140 kilos)!
The symbol of the Easter candle is powerful because it appeals to our senses of sight, smell and touch. We see the impressive candle and its flame, smell the burning wax and feel the warmth of the flame, making our experience of the Light of Christ a vivid one.
The candle is usually decorated with a cross, the numerals of the year, and the Alpha-Omega monogram. These additions make the candle a kind of consecration of time, a reminder of the timelessness of the paschal mystery. At the Easter Vigil, the celebrant traces them on the candle with the words:
Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power and through every age and for ever. Amen.”
Grains of incense are traditionally inserted into the extremities of the cross to represent the wounds of Christ: “By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us. Amen.”
The priest lights the candle from the new fire, saying: “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”
The people process into the darkened church following the deacon or priest who carries the candle high. The Easter candle is thus a pillar of fire leading us into the promised land. It is also a powerful sign of our unity as the Body of Christ. As we light our small candle from its flame, we are reminded that in “Christ our Light” we become the light of the world ourselves. The symbolism is continued in the candles presented to the newly baptised at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday.
The words of the Exultet proclaim: “May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning”. The Easter candle should not be extinguished after the Vigil but kept burning until the evening of Easter Sunday. If this is not possible, it should be extinguished only after everyone has left the church and lit again before people arrive for the next Mass, not just today but throughout the season of Easter.
When the cantor stands beneath the paschal candle to proclaim the Exultet, when the catechumens are baptised by its light, it proclaims to all the “Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a light that no darkness can extinguish.”