April 24, 2020
One of the great and beautiful symbols of the Risen Christ is the Paschal Candle. Lit from the Great Fire in the first movement of the Easter Vigil, the candle bears the five wounds of the Lord’s passion and reminds us that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega and that all time belongs to him. The candle is prominently situated in the sanctuary throughout the Easter Season. On Pentecost Sunday it can be carried in procession out of the sanctuary to make its return for the celebration of baptismal and funeral liturgies.
I got to wondering where this great symbol of our Risen Lord originated. I should have asked one of my seminary liturgy professors. Apparently it was not a question weighing heavily on my mind in those days.
The great candle has several precedents in Jewish and early Christian rituals. In Jewish homes an oil lamp or candle was lit at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Jewish Christians were already doing this on Saturday evening which was the vigil of the Christian Sabbath. From this custom our early ancestors in the faith developed a service called the “Lucernarium” – a service of light that began the evening prayers every Saturday evening in preparation for Sunday.
Since every Sunday is “a little Easter,” it followed rather quickly that the Service of Light was “kicked up a notch” and carried out with greater solemnity for that most sacred night of the year, the Vigil of the Resurrection. Saint Jerome in a letter written to a deacon in Italy in 384 mentions that such a candle was used at the Easter Vigil and that a special hymn was sung in praise of the candle and the Risen Lord. Saints Ambrose and Augustine both composed such Easter proclamations to be sung at the Vigil. The Easter Proclamation or Exsultet now in use originated in the 5th century. We don’t know who wrote it.
Records from the early centuries tell that in some places the candle was broken up after the Easter Vigil and pieces given to the faithful to take home. I’m glad this custom fell into disuse. Later this wrecking of the candle was transferred to the following Sunday so that the candle burned throughout the entire “Easter Octave.”
Around the 10th century the candle smashing ceased completely. The Easter Candle was kept in a place near the Gospel until Ascension or Pentecost when it was removed to the baptismal font. From around the 12th century, the custom of inscribing the current year and the other designs began. In some places, the dates of all the principal moveable feasts for that year were inscribed, leading to some huge mega-candles weighing as much as 300 pounds. Thus the reference in the Exsultet to the candle as a “pillar.”
Well, that’s a short, selective biography of our Paschal Candle in case you, too, were sleepless at night wondering where it got its start. I wish you could all see the candle burning in the sanctuary of your parish church at Masses during the Easter Season. Looking at it on the TV screen or monitor just does not do it justice. But it is the best we can do for now. Nevertheless, the candle is burning, representing our Risen Lord whose glory dispels every form of darkness, who is the splendor of the Father. He remains true light from true light, the Light of the World. We need not look for any other.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer