- This article describes the Paschal candle of the Western Churches. For the Paschal triple-candle used in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine rite see Paschal Trikirion.
The Paschal candle is a large, white candle used liturgically in the Western Rite of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.). A new Paschal candle is blessed and lit every year at Easter, and is used throughout the Paschal season and then throughout the year on special occasions, such as baptisms and funerals.
Meaning of the Paschal candle
The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes Christ as light of the world and his presence in the midst of his people. The Paschal candle is sometimes referred to as the "Easter candle" or the "Christ candle." The term "Paschal" comes from the word Pesach, which in Hebrew means Passover. The tall white candle in many ways signifies the Divine pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that lead the Israelites in their Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The Paschal candle holds a prominent place in worship in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and some other Protestant churches. The equivalent of the Paschal candle in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Paschal trikirion which differs both in style and usage.
Description of the Paschal candle
For congregations that use a Paschal candle it is the largest candle in the worship space. In most cases today the candle will display several common symbols:
- The cross is always the central symbol, most clearly identifying it as the Paschal candle
- The Greek letters alpha and omega signify that God is the beginning and the end (taken from the Book of Revelation)
- The current year represents God's presence here and now in the midst of the gathered worshipers
- Five grains of incense (most often red) are embedded in the candle (sometimes encased in wax "nails") during the Easter Vigil to represent the five wounds of Jesus: one in each hand, one in each foot, and the spear thrust into his side.
In the medieval church Paschal candles often reached a stupendous size. The Paschal candle of Salisbury Cathedral was said to have been 36 feet tall. Most commonly today, the candle is approximately 2 inches in diameter and 27 to 39 inches tall.
The Paschal candle in the Easter Vigil
At the opening of the Easter Vigil a "new fire" is lit and blessed. The minister will trace the symbols (mentioned above) on the Paschal candle, saying words similar to: "Christ, yesterday and today, the beginning and the ending. To Christ belongs all time and all the ages; to Christ belongs glory and dominion now and forever. Amen."
The Paschal candle is the first candle to be lit with a flame from this sacred fire, representing the light of Christ coming into the world. This represents the risen Christ, as a symbol of light (life) dispelling darkness (death). As it is lit, the minister may say words similar to: "The light of Christ, rising in Glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds."
Typically, the worshiping assembly then processes into the church led by the Paschal candle. The candle is raised three times during the procession, accompanied by the chant "The light of Christ" to which the assembly responds "Thanks be to God". Following the procession the Exultet is chanted, traditionally by a deacon, but it may be chanted by the priest or a cantor. The Exultet concludes with a blessing of the candle:
Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
(For it is fed by the melting wax,
which the mother bee brought forth
to make this precious candle.)
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all humanity,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
In some traditions the base of the candle may be ritually immersed in the baptismal font before proceeding with the remainder of the service.
This candle is traditionally the one from which all other lights are taken for the Easter service.
Use during other times of the year
The candle remains lit at all worship services throughout Easter season (or in some traditions until Ascension Day, when it is extinguished just after the Gospel), during which time it is located in the sanctuary close to the altar. After the Easter season, it is frequently placed near the baptismal font.
The Paschal candle is also lit during services that include the sacrament of baptism to signify the Spirit and fire that John the Baptist promised to those who were baptized in Christ. During the sacrament of baptism in many traditions, a small candle will be lit and presented to the newly-baptized by a member of the community with words similar to, "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." ( )
The Paschal candle is often lit and placed near the casket (or remains) for worship services surrounding the death of a believer (funeral, Mass of Repose, and Mass of Requiem) as a sign of the hope of the resurrection into which Christians are baptized.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches there is no direct correspondence to the Western Paschal candle. However, on Pascha (Easter) and throughout Bright Week, the priest carries a cross and Paschal trikirion (Greek: Τρικιριον; Slavonic: Троіца, troitsa) at all of the services, especially when censing, during the Little Entrance or when giving the Paschal greeting. The trikirion consists of three lit candles in a candlestick, which the priest carries in his left hand. In the Slavic tradition, the three candles may be white of different colors: green, red, blue. The deacon also carries a special Paschal candle which is a single large candle whenever he leads an ektenia (litany) or censes.
"Paschal Candle". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Paschal_Candle.
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