At the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter a “new fire” is ignited and blessed with this prayer:
O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Paschal candle is the first candle to be lighted from this sacred fire. The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes the eternal presence of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Light of the World in the midst of his people, the Light which darkness has never overcome.
The Paschal candle is sometimes referred to as the “Easter candle” or the “Christ candle.” The term “Paschal” comes from the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning Passover, and relates to the Paschal mystery of salvation. The tall white candle may also remind us of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the Israelites in their Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The minister may trace symbols on the Paschal Candle. These symbols may include the cross, five grains of incense embedded in five red or gold wax nails, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, and the number of the current year. The five nails are symbolic of the five “glorious wounds” on Christ’s crucified body. The Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, remind us that Christ is the beginning and the end of creation. The number of the year represents the “today” in “Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The worshiping assembly then processes into the dark church led by the Paschal candle. The candle is raised three times during the procession, accompanied by the chant “The light of Christ” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” Following the procession, a prayer known as the Exultet is chanted, traditionally by a deacon, but it may be chanted by a priest, a cantor, or a choir. The Exultet concludes with a blessing of the candle:
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
It is customary for the Paschal candle to be placed in the center aisle and burn at all services during the Great Fifty Days of Easter as well as at Baptisms and funerals. It reminds us that the Risen Christ was with his disciples for forty days before his Ascension. It also signifies presence of the Risen Christ and his call to the Baptized to bear his light in the world. Sometimes, on Easter, the candle stand is adorned with flowers, as our Cathedral Flower Guild has so beautifully adorned ours.
During these fifty days and whenever we see the Paschal candle burning, let it remind us of the words of Jesus:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 15).
Enjoy this hymn from our Hymnal 1982, sung by the Choir of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California. May your Easter life be flooded with light and may you reflect that light wherever you may be.
I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world;
The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all;
The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
I want to see the brightness of God;
I want to look at Jesus.
Clear Sun of righteousness, shine on my path,
And show me the way to the Father.
I’m looking for the coming of Christ;
I want to be with Jesus.
When we have run with patience the race,
We shall know the joy of Jesus.
I’ll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral