THE PASCHAL CANDLE: ITS HISTORY, MEANING AND SYMBOLS
You first noticed it on Easter Sunday, the new and very large candle now standing in the sanctuary, near the altar or perhaps an ambo. You only see this decorated candle during the Easter season that runs from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, so for only about 50 days of the liturgical year.
That is the Paschal Candle. Do you know what it is, what it represents and what symbols are on it?
Fire, as you may know, has long been a sign of God’s presence. In the Old Testament we have the burning bush on Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire in the desert, the tabernacle lamps, and the sacrificial fires on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. Early Christians considered the kindling of new fire as a symbol of the presence of the Resurrected Lord, the “new pillar of fire.” By the fifth or sixth century, the custom had become associated with celebrations of the Resurrection, and paschal candles found their way into the liturgy of the Western church. For many centuries people used to bring a lighted candle to their homes to light the hearth fire.
Used only during Eastertime, the Paschal candle is an immense candle – often up to 5 feet high – in a large and sometimes very ornate holder. It is blessed during the Easter Vigil and smaller candles are lit from this.
The paschal candle symbolizes the light of the Risen Christ Who comes in glory to dispel the darkness in our lives, thus overcoming death. It is usually adorned with a cross. At the top of the upright beam is the ALPHA sign and at bottom is the OMEGA. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and symbolize Christ, “the first and the last, the living One” as we read in Revelation1, 17-18. They also indicate that all time belongs to Christ. By the way, I’m sure you know that the very word “alphabet” is comprised of alpha and beta – the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. (photo by Fr. Joe Ciccone, vice rector, St. Patrick’s in Rome (5) Facebook
Five pins are placed in the candle – usually at the end of each beam and in the center – to signify Christ’s 5 wounds. And very often, in the four angles created by the upright and the cross beam, there are the 4 numbers of the current year. In the St. Patrick’s candle, you see 2021. This candle is customarily lit at Mass throughout the Easter season that ends on Pentecost Sunday. After the last liturgy on Pentecost, the paschal candle is moved to the baptistery and from its light the candles of newly baptized infants are lighted throughout the year.
The paschal candle stands at the head of casket during a funeral to remind us that Christ, light of the world, has overcome death, and that in baptism the deceased person was incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ.