The Paschal Candle: Its Symbolism Explained
Fr. Scott Haynes
One of the great symbols of Easter is the Paschal Candle. The Paschal candle typifies Jesus Christ,
“the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.”
At the Easter Vigil the Exsultet hymn says that the wax of the Easter Candle is a “mysterious virginal production” of the “mother bee.” The virgin wax of the Paschal candle, therefore, represents the most-pure flesh which Christ derived from His blessed Mother Mary. In the wick we see represented the human soul of Christ, and in the flame the divinity Christ, the Son of God.
The Easter Candle shows the symbol of the Cross and above the Cross the Letter “A” (Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet), and under the cross the letter “Ω” (Omega, the last letter) according to Revelation 1:8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Five large nails are pressed into the Paschal Candle which represent the five wounds Jesus bore for our sins. As the nails are driven into the Paschal candle, grains of incense are also driven in. Incense was in the Old Testament temple a precious offering (Exodus 30:1, see also Luke 1:9 and Matthew 2:11) and the lighting of the candle with new fire itself served as a lively image of the resurrection.
The Pascal Candle is indeed lit in the silence of the Easter Night. The nails are put into the candle; the priest traces the inscription on the candle and proclaims:
“Christ yesterday and today. The Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, His are time and eternity, His are glory and dominion forever and ever.”
The Easter Candle lit like a tower of flame, and we follow Christ out of the desert into the garden of Paradise, just as the Jews followed the pillar of flame by night through the desert into the promised land. As the Paschal candle is brought into the pitch-black church, we sing: Lumen Christi – “Light of Christ,” each time on a higher pitch, and the congregation answers, Deo Gratias – “Thanks be to God.” Now the faithful listen to the Exultet the solemn praise of the light of Christ chanted by the Deacon. It is a long chant of praise, known in Latin as the Præconium paschali.
At a later stage in the Vigil of Vigils, we observe the blessing of the baptismal font, and the Paschal candle is carried from the sanctuary to the font. It is then plunged into the water three times with the words:
Descendat in hanc plenitudinem fontis virtus Spiritus Sancti.
“May the power of the Holy Spirit come down into the fullness of this fountain.”
He who was crucified is alive, He has overcome death for all who believe in Him. The cross is not anymore a symbol of shame but a sign of victory. So, we see the five wounds of Christ on the Easter Candle as doubting Thomas saw them, who after the resurrection recognized Jesus by his wounds (John 20).
The oldest witness of a special Easter Candle, we know, is from 380 AD, it is a letter by St. Jerome. Again St. Augustine, only a few years later, mentions casually that he had composed a hymn of praise for the Paschal candle. In the Eastern Church Fathers, like St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nyssa, also give vivid descriptions of the illumination of the Easter vigil in the second half of the fourth century. The earliest council which speaks upon the subject, is the Fourth Council of Toledo (633 A.D., in Spain). This council makes explicit the connection of the Easter Candle with the Resurrection of Christ.
We learn on the authority of St. Bede the Venerable, speaking of the year 701 A.D., that it was usual in Rome to inscribe the date and other particulars of the calendar either upon the candle itself or on a parchment affixed to it. In the rubrics for the Easter Vigil, the priest inscribes the current year on the candle. This reminds us that Christ is not a mere historical figure, but he is the Lord of Life and our Savior today and forever.
The Paschal Candle, as I mentioned before, is a reminder of the pillar of fire that led the tribe of Israel through the desert into the promised land. As the New Israel, the Church knows that Christ leads us from the desert of sin into the garden of heavenly grace. As the Paschal Candle is representative of Christ as a pillar of fire, the Church was desirous that the Easter candle be rather large. In England, before the reformation, the Paschal candle of Salisbury Cathedral was made each year to be 36 feet in height. When Queen Mary took the throne and restored the Catholic faith for a time in England, she mandated that 300 pounds of pure beeswax be used to make the Paschal candle of Westminster Abbey.
There is so much darkness in the world today. Only Christ, the true Light, can dispel that darkness. This Eastertide as we gaze upon this “pillar of flame” may the Light of Christ flood every corner of our souls. May your hearts be burning brightly like the disciples who walked along the Emmaus road with our Lord as he opened the Scriptures to them. As Catholics seek to restore the sense of the sacred, may we who have received the Light of Christ in Baptism be bright lights of Christ before the world. May those holy words – Lumen Christi – permeate our lives, fill our hearts with charity and may our lives sing a loud Deo gratias!