Happy Easter! Our joyful celebration of the Resurrection continues! [Fr. Don Wolford, who many of you know, is the pastor of my home parish in Wood River; he used to start-and probably still does-every morning Mass by greeting everyone with the same “Happy Easter!”]
One of the great symbols of Easter is our paschal candle. “Paschal,” of course, comes from the Hebrew word which means “Passover,” the event whose significance becomes the basis for our understanding of the Resurrection; thus, “paschal” in the Church tends to refer to the Easter mysteries: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Paschal Candle is thus a symbol for us of Christ, and more specifically, of the light of Christ which comes to us in this glorious moment of the Resurrection. You’ll notice that throughout the Easter season, the candle is lit (to remind us of the Resurrection) and placed near the ambo, where the Word of God is read. It’s the Church’s way of drawing attention to the way the Gospel calls special attention to Christ and, in the Easter season, (you guessed it!) to His Resurrection. Interestingly, the other option for the Paschal Candle’s placement, which I’ve never been gutsy enough to pull off, is to place is directly in the center of the sanctuary. That’s right, smack dab in the middle of everything, where it’s light reminds us of the centrality of the Easter event.
Besides Easter, of course, the Paschal Candle is lit at two very significant moments of the Christian life: on the day of our Baptism and on the day of our Christian funeral (which more and more people, sadly, are opting not to have). These two moments form a sort of inclusion of the Christian life-the bookend moments, wherein God called us His own and then called us to Himself, we pray, for eternity. Thus, the Paschal Candle very strongly suggests the “Passover” event to us, as Baptism and death are both a sort of passing over from one way of life to another.
The Paschal Candle, as you probably know, is blessed at the very beginning of the Easter Vigil, before it is lit and processed into a completely dark Church as the minister cries out “The light of Christ!” and the people cry back “Thanks be to God!” There are a few symbols which, properly speaking, one should always find on the Easter candle (besides the “decorative stuff” that varies from candle to candle); probably, unless you’ve taken a moment to look close, you’ve never noticed these symbols!
First, there is always a cross, obviously symbolizing the glorious instrument by which Christ chose to destroy our death forever. As well, there is the Alpha and Omega (usually above and below the cross), representing Christ, who is the beginning and the end. You’ll also find, usually in the corners of the cross, the year of our Lord in which the candle is blessed. These symbols are traced by the priest before he blesses the candle, as he says the following words: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to Him and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age for ever.”
Lastly, you’ll notice that the candle always has five “nails” stuck in it in five significant places on the cross: one at each point and one in the center. Each of these wax nails contains a grain of incense, and they represent the five wounds of Christ: the crown of thorns upon Christ’s head, the nails in His hands and feet, and the spear thrust into His heart. The priest inserts these grains of incense with the prayer, “By His holy land glorious wounds, may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us. Amen.”
As I’ve always said, there’s a reason for everything the Church does! These things might seem like “small potatoes,” but I love these little traditions that make our Church Catholic and which, if we know them and let them, speak to us the depth of the mysteries we live in these holy days!
Keep spreading joy!