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Origin and Use of the Paschal Candle

And More on the Passion

ROME, APRIL 4, 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 Easter.

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 is unknown.

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 or ambo.

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.

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