The Easter Candle


Of all the visible symbols of Easter, the Easter or paschal candle is by far the most important. Its first recorded use was in Pavia in 520, but it did not appear in Rome for many centuries after this.

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.

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 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, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power and through every age and for ever.”

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 the Lord guard us and protect us.”
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 “the Light of Christ” we become the light of the world ourselves.

When the deacon, priest or cantor stands beneath the paschal candle to proclaim the Exsultet, 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.”

The words of the Exsultet proclaim: “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star”. 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.

In my column on 18th March I said that no publisher would print a people’s Sunday Missal until work on revising the Lectionary is finalised. I have since learned that St Paul’s have published a “Sunday Missal - Complete Edition” containing all of the prayers of the revised Missal, the full 3-year cycle of scripture readings from the current Lectionary, the complete Easter liturgies and the Australian feasts. It will be available at the end of April.

Their Weekday Missal for Australia and New Zealand, containing the Order of Mass, the complete weekday cycle of Scripture readings, the Proper of Saints and all of the Masses for special occasions, will be available from August.

Elizabeth Harrington