More to be found in candles than wicks and wax

By | April 7, 2012

The paschal candle (sometimes called the Easter candle) is “the candle” of the year. Yes, there are altar candles, baptismal candles and votive candles. But no candle is an important as the paschal candle, lit from the Easter fire at the Easter Vigil Mass.

The paschal candle will burn at every Mass during the Easter season, lasting until Pentecost Sunday. And it will be lit again at every baptism and every funeral at the parish during the year.

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship notes that the paschal candle must always be made of wax and that beeswax be at least 75% of the content. Beeswax burns cleanly, with little soot and smoke. The Exultet from the new translation of the Roman Missal notes the contributions of bees to this candle.

There is only one paschal candle, new each year and it must “be of sufficiently large size that it may convey the truth that Christ is the light of the world.”

The use of a paschal candle is ancient in the church. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” even references “a poem of the candle” (carmen ceiri) written by St. Jerome in the fourth century.

Easter candles are very distinctive. Even after the Easter season, you can spot the Easter candle standing in the background. It is the tall one with the Christ symbols and the year marked on it.

Under the new missal, the celebrant is the one who will cut a cross into the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil. He will also place the numbers of the current year and the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega” into the wax, between the arms of the cross. These first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolize the beginning and the end. Jesus is referred to as the alpha and the omega at the beginning and the end of the Book of Revelation (1:8,22:13).

Other symbols on the paschal candle represent the five wounds of Christ — now made glorious by his resurrection. These are symbolized with five grains of incense — reminders of the aloes and spices that anointed Christ’s body as it was laid in the tomb — that are embedded into the cross on the paschal candle. This may also be done by the priest himself at the Easter Vigil. If so, as he places the grains of incense, he will pray, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”

Even without the incense or cross markings, the Christological symbolism of the paschal candle can be seen just in its pure waxen form. Sacred tradition teaches that:

  • the candle’s wax reminds us of Christ’s pure nature, taken from his virgin mother (that’s why beeswax is preferred);
  • the wick reminds us of his fragile human nature;
  • and the flame symbolizes the fire of Christ’s divinity.

The final symbolism of the paschal candle is its lighting in the darkness of night at the Easter Vigil. The priest lights the candle from the Easter fire, praying, “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”

Darkness is an ancient symbol of death, chaos and the grave. This is why some parishes choose to kindle the Easter fire with a piece of flint rather than a match or lighter; striking a living spark from dead stone is very symbolic. Then, from this blessed Easter fire, the paschal candle is lit. Only then are all the other candles in the darkened church lit, from this one new candle.

This paschal candle reminds us that Christ has risen in triumph, and that our resurrection is likewise assured in him. “Christ our Light,” is sung as the paschal candle is carried to the sanctuary of the church. And all gathered in the church will respond, “Thanks be to God,” as our own candles are set ablaze.

Again the symbolism is clear: just as our small candles take light from Christ’s Paschal candle, so will we will receive eternal life from God through Christ.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Diocese of San Jose, Calif.; Dictionary of the Liturgy; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; the U.S. bishops’ website at usccb.org.

 

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