written by F. Edward McNamara, L.C.
Among the characteristics of the Easter Vigil is the Easter or Paschal candle the solitary light in the darkness that gradually spreads until the entire church is bathed in the warm glow of candlelight.
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.
All of this ceremony must be carried out at night, however what does night mean in this case? The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Roman Calendar, says:
“The Easter Vigil, during the holy night when Christ rose from the dead, ranks as the ‘mother of all vigils’ (Augustine, Sermon 219: PL 38, 1088). Keeping watch, the Church awaits Christ’s resurrection and celebrates it in the sacraments. Accordingly, the entire celebration of this vigil should take place at night, that is, it should either begin after nightfall or end before the dawn of Sunday.”
In 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments also addressed this question with greater specificity in its ‘Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts.’ After repeating the rubric cited above, the Congregation noted that ‘This rule is to be taken according to its strictest sense. Reprehensible are those abuses and practices which have crept in many places in violation of this ruling, whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that it is customary to celebrate anticipated Masses (no. 78).’
The intention of the ‘Missale Romanum’ is clear: the Easter Vigil is to take place in darkness. Thus the approved translation of ‘post initium noctis’ is ‘after nightfall,’ that is, after the time in the evening when daylight is last visible. This time is roughly equivalent to astronomical twilight, which is defined as the time after which “the Sun does not contribute to sky illumination.”
In Rome sunset will take place at 19.34 on Holy Saturday, March 31, 2018. However, Astronomical Twilight will not occur until 21:10. While some pastoral flexibility concerning the astronomical mathematics of the question is reasonable, it is clearly the intent of the Church that the Easter Vigil not begin until it is dark.”
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.