By Father Allen Morris
The Paschal candle is special because of the blessing it receives at the Easter Vigil. It receives this blessing that throughout the Easter season and indeed throughout the year, it might serve as a symbol of Christ present, and as a reminder of what it is that Christ achieves for us.
THE CANDLE IS prepared for this service at the Easter Vigil. In the dark of the night of Holy Saturday, the church gathers around the Easter Fire to begin its time of vigil. After the community has been greeted, the first action is the blessing of the Easter Fire and of the Easter candle.
The candle, normally very much larger than any other candle used in the church during the year, is presented. Often it will be decorated in some way, but the most significant 'decoration' is that which it receives next.
Marked with the wounds of Christ it becomes for a moment, Christ in the tomb, lifeless. But then, a flame is taken from the Easter fire and the candle lit, comes to life. Can anything appear much more 'dead' than an unlit candle? But lit, it lives. And from it we ourselves draw light and the church, as it were, returns to life.
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Dispersing the darkness
Father Stephen Yim initiates the Holy Saturday service with the lighting of the new fire at Church of Christ the King. From this fire the Paschal candle was lit, and a flame from the candle was then used to light the rest of the candles held by those attending the service.
We ritualize our coming to life with Christ in what I think is one of the most moving parts of the liturgy each year. The minister bearing the Paschal candle leads the procession into the darkened church.
At first the only light is the light from the Paschal candle. He sings out Lumen Christi: The light of Christ.
In the first place is the way in which this candle is a source of light, a symbol of the light that Christ brings into the world.
From the Easter Fire the procession makes its way into the darkened church, lit first only by this single flame, signifying Christ, the one true light. Then from this flame we all receive light - the flame from this candle lights the small candle that each one carries, and signifies the faith that we all receive and share.
We who are united with Christ through baptism, are reminded through this action that we are always to be bearers of the light of Christ, his witnesses to the world. What happens in our ritual with candles is intended to happen in our world, through our sharing with others the love and life we receive from Christ.
For me, this time when light multiplies in the church, and the darkness is progressively dispersed is one of the most moving moments in the Easter Vigil.
The Paschal candle leads us into the Easter Vigil, and from that Vigil we keep the candle, to serve us throughout the Easter Season, at all our liturgies, as a potent sign of the resurrected Christ and the new life he offers.
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A light at Baptism
At the end of Easter, after the last liturgy of Pentecost Sunday, the Paschal candle is moved from the sanctuary to the baptistery. It is lit again for every celebration of baptism during the year. In the church, baptism is very much seen as the Easter sacrament, where we share in Christ's death, dying to sin, and where he shares with us the new life that is his resurrection.
The Paschal candle shines its Easter light on our celebration, and after the principal events of the baptism, the washing with water and the anointing with chrism, the focus of the rite turns to the candle itself. One of the godparents is invited to take a candle and light it from the Paschal candle, receiving from it the fire, the light of Easter, Christ's light, the light of faith.
"Receive the light of Christ," says the presider; "You have been enlightened by Christ.
"Walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.
"When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom."
The other time that the Paschal candle is used outside of Eastertide is at funerals. It is placed at the head of the coffin.
Again it burns as a sign of the resurrected Lord, a sign that Christ has conquered death, and that in him, we too receive the promise of eternal life.
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The cost he bears
There is further symbolism present in the Paschal candle.
A symbolism expressed in the way that, in fulfilling its purpose, that of bearing light for us, the very substance of the candle is consumed.
It is as though the candle makes sacrifice of itself so that we might receive light.
Now this of course happens with all candles. But with the smaller candles which we use in every liturgy, those on the altar and those used in procession, as they burn down, they are replaced by others, and we scarcely notice the change.
With the Paschal candle, however, there is only one candle, and it accompanies us through the whole year, and we accompany it.
We see what its service costs it. At the beginning of the Vigil it stands proud and tall. By the end of Easter it may have been half consumed and then through the remainder of the year, leading up to Lent and Holy Week of the following year it progressively burns lower. By the end of its time there may be just a little stump left.
All that it is has been offered for us: and even in its poverty it continues to serve as a potent reminder of the self-emptying, sacrificial love of Christ for us.
(Father Allen Morris is Secretary to the Department for Christian Life and Worship of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.)