ROME, 3 APRIL 2007 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Can you explain the origin of the paschal candle and how long after
Easter is it to be lit during Mass? Is it to be brought out into the
sanctuary and lit also during weddings and funerals throughout the year,
as is done in one parish I visited?
E.L., Fresno, California
A: The origin of the paschal candle is uncertain. The most likely origin
is that it derived from the Lucernarium, the evening office with which
early Christians began the vigil for every Sunday and especially that of
In turn, this rite is probably inspired by the Jewish custom of lighting
a lamp at the conclusion of the Sabbath. The rite therefore has its
roots in the very beginning of Christianity.
In the Lucernarium rite the light destined to dispel the darkness of
night was offered to Christ as the splendor of the Father and
indefectible light. This Sunday rite was logically carried out with
greater solemnity during the Easter Vigil.
There is clear evidence that this solemn rite began no later than the
second half of the fourth century. For example, the use of singing a
hymn in praise of the candle and the Easter mystery is mentioned as an
established custom in a letter of St. Jerome, written in 384 to
Presidio, a deacon from Piacenza, Italy.
Sts. Ambrose and Augustine are also known to have composed such Easter
proclamations. The poetic and solemn text of the "Exultet," or Easter
proclamation now in use, originated in the fifth century but its author
The use of the candle has varied over the centuries. Initially it was
broken up after the Easter Vigil and its fragments given to the
faithful. This was later transferred to the following Sunday; but from
the 10th century the use prevailed of keeping it in a place of honor
near the Gospel until the feast of the Ascension (now until Pentecost).
From around the 12th century the custom began of inscribing the current
year on the candle as well as the dates of the principal movable feasts.
The candle hence grew in size so as to merit the attribution of pillar
mentioned in the "Exultet." There are cases of candles weighing about
300 pounds. The procession foreseen in the present rite requires much
more moderate dimensions.
The paschal candle is usually blessed at the beginning of the Easter
Vigil ceremonies and is placed on a special candlestick near the altar
During the ceremony, five grains of incense representing Christ's wounds
are inserted in the form of a cross. An alpha above the cross and an
omega below (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet) indicate
that Christ is the beginning and end of all. The current year is traced
on the four sides of the cross.
The candle remains in the presbytery during the 50 days of Easter season
and is lit for all liturgical offices. After Pentecost it is left next
to the baptismal font.
During the year it is lit during all baptisms and funeral services; the
candle is placed next to the casket during the funeral Mass. In this way
it symbolizes baptism as a death and resurrection in Christ, and also
testifies to Christian certainty in the resurrection of the dead as well
as to the fact that all are alive in the risen Christ.
The paschal candle may also be lit for some devotional practices, such
as the fairly common custom of the faithful renewing their baptismal
promises on concluding retreats and spiritual exercises.
Finally, while venerable legitimate customs might exist in some places,
I am unaware of any official liturgical role for the paschal candle
during the celebration of matrimony. ZE07040321
* * *
Follow-up: Origin and Use of the Paschal Candle [4-24-2007]
Our eagle-eyed readers spotted some discrepancies in my April 3 piece on
the paschal candle.
When mentioning the use of the paschal candle at funerals I should have
said "may be used," as this is an option not a mandate.
I also mentioned the "blessing" of the candle in general terms whereas
in fact it is the new fire, not the candle, that is blessed.
All the same, as we suggested in our column of April 11, 2006, a pastor
of multiple parishes may simply bless extra candles after the Easter
One priest with several parishes asked if he may continue using paschal
candles from previous years in those parishes where there has been no
Each parish should have a new candle every year as a sign of each
community's participation in the Easter mystery. However, if this
represents a heavy economic burden and the candle receives little use
during the year, then a candle with a changeable date could be used.
Finally, I mentioned that the candle is lit during all liturgical
offices during the 50 days of Easter. This is not obligatory, however,
and the liturgical norms would only require that candle be lit for the
more solemn ceremonies; for example, for all solemnities, all Sunday
Masses and all daily Masses during the Easter octave. ZE07042407