Catholic Classroom: The Paschal Candle
Question: What is the significance of the Paschal candle?
If you have attended the Easter Vigil, then you have witnessed a unique event in the liturgical year: the blessing of the fire and lighting of the Paschal candle. If you did not make it to the Easter Vigil, however, you will still see this candle prominently when you go to Mass during the Easter season. It is kept lit during liturgies in a special place in the sanctuary near the Gospel until Pentecost.
The Paschal candle has a beautiful significance to Christians, with its rich symbolism and origins in the early centuries of Christianity. Though use of the candle likely began with the practical purpose of providing light to see, even this purpose allowed the candle to symbolize Jesus as the Light overcoming darkness in the Resurrection. This is why the candle is lit at the beginning of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday and carried in a procession through the church that is still in darkness.
Following the procession of the Paschal candle, the deacon or priest chants the Exsultet, which proclaims the Easter mystery in the context of salvation history. During the Exsultet, the deacon or priest says of the candle:
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
The pillar—which is the candle itself—takes on new meaning when it burns with the blessed fire. It feeds the Church by passing on its light while yet sustaining itself.
There is additional symbolism in the components that make up the candle. The pure wax that makes up the candle represents Jesus’ purity. The wick symbolizes Jesus’ human nature, while the flame symbolizes his divine nature. The markings on the candle also carry special meaning. The cross represents Christ’s great sacrifice; the five grains of incense that are inserted represent his five wounds; and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega represent Jesus as the beginning and end. Often, the candle is also inscribed with the current year, showing each church’s continuing participation in the universal celebration.
Once the Easter season is over, the Paschal candle is moved to a place near the baptismal font. There, it can be lit for baptismal and funeral services as a powerful reminder of the Resurrection.