The Paschal Candle

May 29, 2012

The Paschal Candle: From Easter to Ordinary Time

By Fr. Gregory Schnakenberg, OP St. Patrick Church, Columbus, OH

IMG_1896Throughout the Easter Season, the Paschal Candle burns brightly in the sanctuary as a symbol of the Risen Christ, who is the light of the world. First carried into the Church at the Easter Vigil, the Paschal Candle “is lit at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations” during the Easter Season (Paschalis sollemnitatis, n. 99).  The continued presence of the Paschal Candle in the sanctuary helps to recall, therefore, the period after Christ’s Resurrection when He appeared repeatedly to His Apostles. If the symbolism of the Paschal Candle itself and of its continued use throughout the Easter Season is fairly straightforward, the meaning of its extinguishment and transfer to the baptismal font is perhaps a bit more complex. Let us therefore briefly consider the significance and role of Paschal Candle as we now move from the Easter Season to Ordinary Time. In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the Paschal Candle is extinguished on the Feast of the Ascension, immediately after the reading (or singing) of Mark’s Gospel for the feast. Here, the extinguishing of the Candle symbolizes, in a rather dramatic way, the ascension of Christ to heaven. In the Dominican Rite, the Paschal Candle likewise makes its last appearance on the Feast of the Ascension. However, in the Dominican Rite, the Paschal Candle remains lit throughout the Mass and is also lit at the various celebrations of the Divine Office, until the completion of the midday prayers (the Office of Sext).  Only then is it removed. This may reflect a very ancient tradition, well-known in the Middle Ages, that Christ’s Ascension took place at the noon hour. In the ordinary form of Roman Rite, the Paschal Candle remains lit an additional ten days, up through the celebration of Pentecost. Here one sees the unity of the Easter Season being emphasized, as the light of the Paschal Candle links Easter to Pentecost.  In addition, the presence of the Paschal Candle on the day of Pentecost highlights how the earthly mission of Christ finds its completion in the sending of the Holy Spirit. With the sending of the Holy Spirit and the extinguishing of the Candle after Pentecost, one sees in turn how the Spirit of Christ has now come to dwell into the life of the Church. Tracing this out a bit further, the moving of the Paschal Candle to the baptismal font after Pentecost connects the Paschal Mystery of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the celebration of the Sacraments. As Pope Leo I once explained in a homily on the Ascension, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into His Sacraments” (Sermo. 74.2: PL 54, 398). Accordingly, throughout the year, the Paschal Candle is lit each time a baptism is celebrated. Within the celebration of Baptism itself, the person’s own baptismal candle is lit from the Paschal Candle while the priest says the words, “Receive the Light of Christ.”  Those who attended the Easter Vigil may recall how the Paschal Candle was carried into the Church while the deacon sang, “the Light of Christ.” Thus, the connection between Christ’s Resurrection and the person’s own baptism is made manifest. Moreover, the baptized person, having been enlightened by Christ, is now sent forth to be the light of the world (Mt. 5:14). Along with its use at baptisms, the Paschal Candle is also lit when one’s earthly life comes to a close. At the celebration of funerals, the presence of the Paschal Candle provides a powerful symbol of the Resurrected Christ and His victory over death in the midst of the grief and sorrow that accompanies the passing of a loved one. Placed near the coffin, it expresses the Church’s divine hope that the deceased, having been baptized into Christ, will also share in the joy of Resurrection on the last day. In short, the Paschal Candle serves as a continuing symbol, both in the Easter Season and throughout the whole of the liturgical year, of the Risen Christ, the light of the world, and the Church’s incorporation into His Paschal Mystery. Photo: The Paschal Candle appearing in conjunction with this story was designed by Mrs. Gina Switzer, a member of the Dominican Laity and a parishioner at the Dominican Church of St. Patrick in Columbus, Ohio.

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