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Origin and Use of the Paschal Candle

And More on the Passion

ROME, APRIL 3, 2007 ( 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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Follow-up: When Reading the Passion

After our remarks on different methods of reading the Passion (see March 20) a reader from Rochester, Minnesota, made some interesting observations, to wit:

“1. In the United States, Catholics observe the practices of other traditions. No matter how careful the books of these traditions are, strange practices creep into the ceremonies.

“2. These get taken home and are sometimes further distorted. So, the practice of the Episcopal Church of allowing multiple readers (for each of the individuals named) and having the ‘crowd’ read by the entire congregation have been adopted by Roman Catholic parishes. Since such things are usually poorly prepared the noise and confusion can be terrible.

“The same goes for sitting. In the provisions of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 the people may sit for the early portion of the Passion. They are instructed to rise at the point in the narrative when Jesus takes up his cross. A period of silence is required at the moment of Jesus’ death. A genuflection or kneeling is not mentioned, although the practice is widespread. In circumstances where there are multiple services with small groups of worshippers, the Passion may begin where the people are directed to stand.

“The custom of interpolating hymns is, naturally, Lutheran. I guess it works well in Germany. I have seen it done in an Episcopal Church. The Lutheran organist did it with great sensitivity to the text and did not get in the way of the moment of silence. Even with the good work it was always on the edge of falling apart.”

Our reader also recommends singing the Passion as the best means of dividing the parts. I would agree that it should be done whenever possible but recognize that it is a formidable task for a nonprofessional singer, especially the poor narrator of St. John’s Gospel on Good Friday.

Several readers asked if it was permitted to incorporate mimes and dramas during the reading of the Passion. While such elements may be incorporated into extra-liturgical events such as a Way of the Cross or catechesis, they are never permitted within the liturgy. God’s Word must be heard in the silence of the soul with as little interference as possible from visual or audible distractions.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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