Paschal Candle

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Paschal Candle

Easter Candle

Fire, light, and brightness have served as Easter symbols since early Christian times (see also Easter Fires). Biblical accounts of the Resurrection encourage this association, since they all agree that Jesus'followers discovered his empty tomb, and in some instances witnessed the risen Christ, on Easter Sunday morning at sunrise. The early Christians celebrated Easter with a late-night vigil service. It began near midnight on Holy Saturday and continued into the early hours of Sunday. Given the darkness of the hour the provision of light for this service was a simple necessity. Nevertheless the light itself became a symbol of the risen Lord. By the sixth century, many western European Christians began to interpret the one large candle used to illuminate the texts being read aloud during the Easter Vigil as a special symbol of Christ. Thus this candle became known as the paschal candle. The word "paschal" evolved from the Greek word Pascha, which means Easter. Pascha in turn came from Pesah, the Hebrew word for Passover.

In Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, the Easter Vigil service begins with the lighting of the paschal candle. Paschal candles may be found in other Protestant churches as well. According to tradition the candle must be lit with newly kindled fire, rather than from an already-established flame. The kindling of the new fire generally takes place out of doors. The congregation, carrying unlit candles of their own, gathers round the flames. The priest begins the Easter Vigil service by inviting the congregation to worship and laying a blessing on the new fire. Then the priest inscribes a cross and the Greek letters alpha and omega into the wax of the candle. Alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, refer to lines from the Bible's Book of Revelation that use these letters to describe God as both the source and destination of all things (Revelation 1:8, 21:6, 22:13). The priest also carves the number representing the current year into the wax. Afterwards he or she pushes five grains of incense, representing the five wounds of Christ, into the wax. Then the priest lights the wick with the newly kindled fire. Acolytes, young people who assist the priest during religious services, light their candles from the paschal candle and begin to pass the flame along to others. After everyone's candle is lit the congregation and clergy form a procession into the church, led by the deacon carrying the glowing paschal candle. The deacon then places the paschal candle in a stand near the lectern, where its light will illuminate the Bible passages that will be read out loud during the service.

The illuminated paschal candle greets worshipers at all Sunday services between the Easter Vigil and Pentecost. Its light represents the presence of the risen Christ. Before 1970 Roman Catholic clergy removed the paschal candle on Ascension Day. The extinguishing of the paschal candle on this day symbolized the fact that after the Ascension the resurrected Jesus would no longer appear to his disciples on earth clothed in human flesh. The Roman Catholic Church currently specifies that the paschal candle should remain in use through the feast of Pentecost. This change represents the recognition that the candle stands for the Risen Christ, whose presence is celebrated throughout the Easter season, rather than the historical Jesus, who departed on Ascension Day.

In addition to its special markings, the paschal candle can be identified by its size. It may measure several feet in height, and is usually placed in a special, tall candlestick standing on the floor, which gives it the appearance of being even bigger. In past times some churches and cathedrals produced enormous paschal candles. Church documents from the eighth to twelfth centuries record candles that range from just under two feet to five feet tall. By the eighteenth century several French churches and cathedrals prided themselves on paschal candles that stood about twenty-five feet high. England's Salisbury cathedral once boasted of paschal candles that soared up thirty-six feet in height.


In explaining the origins of the paschal candle some researchers point to an ancient Christian service called the Lucernarium, a ceremonial lighting of the lamps in preparation for the evening prayer service. As time passed the Lucernarium became a service in its own right which included chanting, prayer, and psalms. Scholars believe that the early Christians based the Lucernarium on Jewish lamp-lighting rituals. In time, however, the Christian observance disappeared. Some commentators think that the ceremony that surrounds the lighting of the paschal candle on Easter eve is all that remains of this ancient observance.

The first historical document referring to a special paschal candle dates back to the year 378 A.D. By the fifth century many references to the paschal candle can be found in Church documents from Spain and Italy. Christians quickly interpreted the candle as a symbol of Christ. To many the enormous candle also recalled the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13:21). In the eighth century a scholarly English monk named St. Bede (672 or 673-735) recorded the fact that in Rome priests carved the number representing the current year onto the paschal candle. By the tenth century historical documents refer to the insertion of five grains of incense into the candle. Several interpretations of this practice have been offered over the centuries, but most commentators now agree that the grains serve to represent the five wounds of Christ. The inscription of the alpha and omega on the candle can be traced back to the twelfth century. In the twelfth century Roman Catholic authorities officially incorporated the paschal candle into the Roman liturgy.

The method of kindling the new fire used to light the candle has varied through the ages. In some parts of Europe the clergy once used powerful lenses to intensify the rays of the sun to such a degree that they could kindle flame. This method depended on the fact that during the Middle Ages people began to celebrate the Easter Vigil on Saturday afternoon or morning rather than Saturday night. In other zones they hid a candle in a special location in the church on Maundy Thursday and used that flame to light the paschal candle. In still other areas they used flint, which when struck with force often gives off a spark. Some deemed this method especially appropriate in light of Bible passages in which Jesus describes himself as a "cornerstone" (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17). With this passage in mind the stony flint could serve as a symbol of the Christ, whose words and deeds spark the process of spiritual illumination among his followers.

Further Reading

MacGregor, A. J. Fire and Light in the Western Triduum. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. O'Shea, W. J. "Easter Vigil." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Web Site

"How Do We Use a Paschal Candle?" by Scott C. Weidler, posted on the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's web site at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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