The Paschal Candle:
Its History, Symbolism and Restoration
The Paschal Candle is not merely iconic, but the central and climatic focus of the Sacred Triduum, as it signifies our Lord's victorious Resurrection.
Following are two articles concerning the Paschal Candle, its historical development, symbolism and reformed rite of blessing introduced in 1951, and subsequently printed in the Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus (OHS), as part of the 1955 Holy Week Reform.
The particular subject of the Paschal Candle―and the Easter Vigil rite in general―demonstrates the admirable work of Pope Pius XII in reforming and even augmenting the Holy Week ceremonies. This effort consisted of not merely a restoration, but also beneficial additions, thereby improving the most sacred rites of the Church's Liturgical Year.
As explained in the second article, the following reforms were made to the Easter Vigil rite:
1. The restoration of the proper time of the vigil―at night instead of the morning.
2. Regaining the central emphasis of the Paschal Candle, by:
Omitting the use of the so-called "Triple Reed Candle" which was obscuring the full symbolic value of the Paschal Candle. NB: This twisted set of candles originally served only a practical purpose―to light tall and immovable Paschal Candles, outmoded by the portable ones now commonly in use.
Committing the full rite of blessing to the celebrant (priest or bishop) instead of the deacon.
Adding prayers to the rite of blessing (see the pics of the OHS pages).
Including an actual blessing by the celebrant. This was previously not done, as the Paschal Candle was simply being "hallowed" by the deacon.
3. Singing the Exsultet uninterrupted before the already blessed Paschal Candle (instead of breaking up this glorious chant with the ritual of blessing the candle)―watch part of the ceremony here (note: the first incensation of the Paschal Candle and Gospels book is missing).
4. Restoring the offices of the schola, lector, subdeacon, and deacon by not having the celebrant silently repeat their parts (a rubrical hold-over from Low Mass).
5. Re-emphasizing the ancient and suppliant nature of the "Flectamus genua" by prescribing a kneeling posture (and not merely a genuflection) with a pause for silent prayer.
6. Adding the Renewal of Baptismal Promises, thus giving greater focus to the night of baptisms and encouraging the faithful to take seriously their Christian duties in the world.
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The Liturgy of the Paschal Candle
By David Baier, O.F.M., S.T.D.
Homiletic and Pastoral Review; April 1933; Vol. XXXIII, No. 7; pgs 702-709
The paschal candle is as characteristic of Eastertide as the Crib is of the Christmas Season. The latter represents the Saviour in a more or less realistic manner, the former in a symbolic manner. The Church rejoices in the annual commemoration of Christ’s birth; but in various ways she gives expression every year to still greater joy in commemorating the victory of Christ over sin and death. The paschal candle is one way of representing to the faithful the deep significance of the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ.
The origin of the paschal candle must be traced to an ancient practice of the lucernarium, of chanting a hymn of praise and thanks when the lucerna or the lamp was lighted for the evening service. St. Basil the Great (d. 379) remarks that it did not seem proper for the Fathers to accept the gift of the evening light in silence, but they thanked God for it in the words of the ancient prayer: “We praise the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit of God.” The light was for the early Christians a symbol of God or of Christ, “the Light of light.” From the East the practice of the lucernarium was probably introduced into the Western Church by way of Milan at the time of St. Ambrose (d. 397). At least, the daily lucernarium must have been quite a common practice from the fourth century in Northern Italy, Spain and Gaul.
One night of the year, however, was of a more solemn character than any other. This was the night of Holy Saturday when the faithful assembled for the Vigils (the Nocturnal Office), the Solemn Baptism and the Mass of the Resurrection. Very soon the lucernarium of Holy Saturday assumed special importance and was accompanied by a hymn in praise of the large candle which was lighted and brought into the sanctuary to furnish light for the reading of the lessons.
The two earliest reference to a laus cerei (a hymn of praise of the wax candle used in the Resurrection service on Holy Saturday) are those of St. Jerome (d. 420) and St. Augustine (d. 432). The former severely criticizes the practice, principally because the deacons took it upon themselves to sing the praises of the candle, while the bishop and priest were present. From this is may be concluded that the Church of Rome had not yet adopted the practice, though it was common elsewhere in the West. St. Augustine, however, when asked to explain the ceremony of the lucernarium before the Vigil of Easter, replied that the wax candle was solemnly blessed on account of the glorious mystery of that night, that the mystery of the Resurrection may be perceived in the blessing of the sanctified light. Thus is already indicated the beautiful symbolism of the paschal candle.
Though the daily lucernarium was unknown in the Roman Church, the more solemn form of it before the Vigil of Easter must have been adopted quite early. It is not unlikely that Rome carried out the solemn rite of the paschal candle at the beginning of the fifth century, for at that time Pope Zosimus (417-418) granted the deacons of the suburban churches the permission to bless it. But did Rome really have this ceremony at such an early period? It is not certain. If the practice did exist, it must have been given up again later, for Roman liturgical documents of a later period do not mention it. In fact, the First Roman Ordo (end of the seventh century) quite clearly supposes that the practice existed in the suburban cities, but not in Rome itself. In the ninth century Amalarius is still silent about it in his description of Roman practices, though he mentions it as existing in the churches of France. The rite seems to have been resumed in Rome some time before the twelfth century, for in 1145 it existed in the Lateran Basilica.
In the Middle Ages there existed a widespread practice of breaking up the paschal candle and distributing the pieces among the faithful. This took place at first soon after Easter, but later only at the end of Paschaltide. The blessed paschal candle is a sacramental [Agnus Dei discs; see the pic―Ed.], and the portions of it were regarded as such by the faithful, who preserved them for the purpose of obtaining God’s help again the attacks of the devil.
Blessing of the Paschal Candle
St. Augustine already mentions the practice of blessing the paschal candle, but we do not meet with the first formula for blessing it until about a century later. Their author was Bishop Ennodius of Pavia (d. 521). These formulas are not merely hymns praising God in His works of nature and grace, but they are also petitions that the paschal candle may ward off through God’s help the destructive gales and tempests, may be a protecting wall against the enemy, and may contribute to the fertility of the earth, prosperity and innocence of life.
The Gelasian Sacramentary (about the seventh century) represents another stage in the development of the practice of blessing the paschal candle. The formula of blessing consists of two prayers. The second of these is especially interesting, since it is still found in our liturgy of Holy Saturday. The prayer, as originally used, invokes the blessing of God upon the lighted candle (super hunc incensum). When the Latin word incensum came to be used for incense, the phrase in parenthesis was changed to super hoc incensum, that is “upon this incense.” After this change the prayer became a formula for blessing the five grains of incense, which are inserted into the paschal candle in the form of a cross. In our present liturgy of Holy Saturday the blessing of grains of incense immediately follows the blessing of the new fire at the door of the church. After the procession to the sanctuary the deacon chants the Exsultet, during which the grains of incense are inserted in the paschal candle.
Though a French Sacramentary of the latter half of the tenth century probably refers to the practice of inserting grains of incense in the paschal candle, it is certain that the practice existed since the beginning of the twelfth century. Roman liturgical texts from that period clearly prescribe that five grains of incense be inserted in the candle in the form of a cross. This is the practice which we still follow at the present time. It is the outcome of a long process of development.
At first a cross was formed upon the candle by anointing with chrism. This practice existed in Milan and Spain, and probably in France. Later the anointing disappeared and a cross was engraved in the wax-candle or was simply made over the candle; in other words, in some places the person performing the blessing stood before the paschal candle holding in his hand a lighted candle and making the sign of the cross with it three times. This lighted candle was called the incensum. When the word incensum came to signify “incense,” the sign of the cross was no longer made over the paschal candle with the lighted candle (incensum) but with grains of incense.
It is questionable whether we should still speak of the blessing of the paschal candle. By the chanting of the Exsultet the deacon does not bless it, but rather offers it up to God. The Exsultet itself is called the Paschale Præconium, or the Proclamation of Paschal Joy. It contains nothing that might indicate the blessing of the candle. Still, the paschal candle assumes a sacred character on account of its dedication to God, on account of its symbolical signification, by reason of the insertion of the grains of incense which have been previously blessed by the priest, and lastly because it is lighted from the new fire which has been blessed at the beginning of the liturgy of Holy Saturday.
It has been stated that a cross was engraved upon the paschal candle in some places. In many places the current year of Our Lord and the letters Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet) were also inscribed. Later many other chronological data were added to the inscription. For instance, an inscription on a paschal candle at Rouen as late as 1678 consists of forty-eight dates, such as the number of years since the creation and since the deluge and the years of the dedication of the cathedral and the consecration of the archbishop.
St. Augustine already speaks of having composed a laus cerei (or hymn in praise of the paschal candle) in 420, but only a very small part of it has been preserved to posterity. The most ancient laus cerei that has come down to us is that of Bishop Ennodius of Pavia. The formula of blessing the paschal candle as contained in the Gelasian Sacramentary is in great part a laus cerei or eulogy.
Our present Exsultet or Præconium Paschale is of Gallican origin, and is found in the Sacramentary of Bobbio and in the ancient Gallican and Gothic Missals (all from about the seventh century). These liturgical documents ascribe it to St. Augustine, but it is certain that he is not the author. Some medieval writers―for example, Honorius of Autun (twelfth century) and Durandus (d. 1296)―ascribe it to St. Ambrose. Though in its present form it is not the work of the holy Archbishop of Milan, it certainly reflects his spirit and imitates his style. The Exsultet was adopted by Rome from the Gallican Church and thus became the common property of the entire Western Church.
One element of the original Exsultet, however, was eliminated during the course of Middle Ages. It is the extensive eulogy of the bees on account of their part in the production of the wax from which the paschal candle is made.
The praise of the bees is based upon an ancient belief in the virginal generation of bees, namely, that they produce their offspring without the assistance of a mate. The great Latin poet, Virgil, already gave expression to this popular belief in the Fourth Book of his Georgics. St. Ambrose repeated the legend and based upon it his comparison of Christian virgins with bees. Rufinus (d. 410) considers the bee as symbolizing Mary, who conceived and gave birth to Christ without impairing her virginity.
From this application of the legend to its use in the liturgy of the paschal candle there is but a step. The bee produces the wax from which the paschal candle is made. Like the virginal bee, the Virgin Mary conceived in her virginal womb the God-Man who is symbolized by the paschal candle. Until the thirteenth century the eulogy of the bees constituted an important element of the Exsultet. Since that time only the introduction to the eulogy, a brief reference to the activity of the bees in producing the was of the candle, has remained.
In the Middle Ages there existed for a time in Italy the practice of using rolls of parchment (rotuli) for chanting the Exsultet. These rolls contained not only the text but also miniatures illustrating the text. In chanting the Exsultet the deacon unrolled the parchment and allowed it to hang down in front of the ambo. From the miniatures the faithful could know the meaning of each part of the text, as it was being chanted. Such Exsultet rolls were still in use in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Even to one who is not familiar with Latin the word Exsultet would suggest the general character of this chant. As stated above, the Exsultet is a proclamation of paschal joy. By His victory over sin and death, the Risen Christ, symbolized by the paschal candle, appears in every truth as the Light of the World.
In the first part of the Exsultet, the deacon bids the heavenly choir to rejoice because of the victory of their King; the earth, because its darkness has given way to the brightness of the Eternal King; Mother Church, because she is resplendent with this great Light. The deacon, as a member of the Church, now calls upon his brethren to beseech God to aid him by the light of grace in chanting the praise of the paschal candle, that is, of the Risen Christ.
The deacon then proceeds with the principal part, which is introduced in a manner similar to the Preface of the Mass. It is meet and just to chant the praise of God and His only-begotten Son with one’s whole heart and mind. It is the Son of God who atoned for the sin of Adam by the shedding of His Blood, It is by the Blood the same Lamb of God that the faithful are sanctified. The Paschal Feast commemorated the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea in departing from Egypt; they were guided in their flight by a pillar of fire.
On this same night―in ancient times the liturgy of Holy Saturday morning was carried out during the night―Christ dispelled the darkness of sin and bestowed the light of His grace upon those who believed in Him (for several centuries baptism was generally conferred immediately after the blessing of the baptismal water).
On this night, too, Christ returned from Limbo as the conqueror of death. Wonderful, indeed, is the condescension of the love of God that He should deliver up His Son for the redemption of His servants. Without sin there would not have been a redemption, there would not have been such a Redeemer.
The night of Christ’s Resurrection is truly a blessed night, enlightened like the day, destroying sin and bringing to men joy and peace and innocence. At this point the deacon arranges the five grains of incense in the paschal candle in the form of a cross and makes an offering of the candle to God in the name of the Church.
In chanting the glory of the paschal candle, which burns for the honor of God, the deacon lights it. But light may be communicated without any detriment to its brightness. At this point of the Exsultet other candles or lamps are lighted as a visible expression of the light of grace which is not diminished, though it is being communicated continually to great numbers of believers.
In conclusion, the Exsultet again points to the blessedness of this night, which has robbed the Egyptians, the spiritual enemy, and hath enriched the Hebrews, the people of God. The deliverance from the bondage of Egypt is a type of the Redemption of Christ. Then follows a beautiful prayer in which the Church prays that Christ, symbolized by the paschal candle, may continually enlighten us by His grace; that the entire Church―clergy and faithful and especially the Holy Father and the bishop―may be granted peace and permanent paschal joy.
The text of the Exsultet leaves no doubt concerning the general symbolism of the paschal candle. There is no reference, however, to any symbolism of the five grains of incense, which are inserted in the candle. Since the end of the thirteenth century the symbolism suggested by Durandus has been frequently repeated, namely, that the grains of incense represent the ointment brought by the holy women or the five wounds which Christ received on the Cross.
It is really unnecessary to look for any symbolism for the act of inserting the grains of incense in the paschal candle. In view of what has been said above, the grains of incense previously blessed by the priest are inserted in the candle in the form of a cross for no other purpose than to consecrate it to God. This is the only sign of the cross that is traced upon the paschal candle.
Use of the Paschal Candle in the Liturgy
After the chanting of the Exsultet twelve prophecies or lessons from the Old Testament are read. There follows the blessing of the baptismal water. The clergy go in procession to the font, being preceded by the paschal candle. Centuries ago, when baptism was conferred after the blessing of the font, the catechumens also formed part of the procession. Like the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites in their escape through the Red Sea from the bondage of the Egyptians, the paschal candle―Christ―is the light guiding all believers in Him through the waters of baptism out of the bondage of sin and Satan.
During the blessing of the baptismal water the paschal candle again comes into use. The candle is dipped three times into the water, and at each dipping the priest calls upon the Holy Ghost to descend with His power upon the water and make it effective for regenerating. This act may well be regarded as representing the baptism of Christ, at which the Holy Ghost descended upon Him in the form of a dove. His baptism prefigured our baptism and dedicated water as a means of the spiritual regeneration of mankind. The paschal candle is again employed on the Vigil of Pentecost for the blessing of baptismal water.
After the blessing of the font on Holy Saturday the paschal candle is replaced in the large stand on the Gospel side of the sanctuary and remains lighted until the end of the Mass. It is prescribed that it be lighted for Mass and Vespers on Easter Sunday, on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday of Easter Week, and on all Sundays of Paschaltide. It is also generally lighted for all High Masses celebrated during Paschaltide, except those celebrated in black or violet vestments.
As previously indicated, the paschal candle is a continual reminder of the Risen Christ during this season of joy. The wax of the candle is a symbol of His Sacred Humanity, the wick symbolizes His Soul, and the light His Divinity. On the Feast of the Ascension the paschal candle is lighted before the Mass and extinguished after the Gospel, which tells of Christ ascending into heaven. The extinguishing of the paschal candle symbolizes the disappearance of Christ from the midst of His disciples, as He ascended by His own divine power into heaven and took possession of His throne at the right hand of His Father.
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Restoration of Paschal Vigil
The Homiletic and Pastoral Review; vol. LI; May 1951, N. 8; pp 738-750
The details of the reported restoration of the Paschal Vigil are fully clarified by the publication of the entire rite in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (XLIV, 123-137), and in a special ceremonial issued by the Vatican Press, entitled Ordo Sabbati Sancti Quando Vigilia Paschalis Instaurata Peragitur. Even though the use of the new rite has so far been limited merely to this year, the restoration of the ceremony so clearly marks a trend that a summary of it become highly important. Very many parish priests will better understand the pastoral advantages of reviving the ancient ceremony, if they acquaint themselves with its new form.
The rite is promulgated by a Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which explains the circumstances of the new provision.
The Church was accustomed to celebrate the Vigil of the Sunday of the Resurrection, which St. Augustine calls "the mother of all sacred vigils" (Sermon 219, in P.L., XXXVIII, 1088), with the greatest solemnity, even from most ancient times.
The celebration of this Vigil took place during the night which precedes the Lord’s Resurrection. In the course of time because of various reasons, this celebration was advanced, at first to the evening, then to the afternoon, and finally to the morning of Holy Saturday, and at the same time diverse changes were introduced, not without injury to the original symbolism.
In our own day, with the increase of investigation into the ancient liturgy, a strong desire has been created to have the Paschal Vigil, particularly, brought back to its pristine splendor by returning it to its original time, the night preceding the Sunday of the Resurrection. A special pastoral reason also arises to make this restoration advisable, namely, to promote attendance by the faithful. Since Holy Saturday is not, as it was formerly, a festive day, very many of the faithful are unable to attend the sacred rite in the morning.
Supported therefore by these reasons, many local Ordinaries, groups of the faithful, and religious men have presented suppliant requests to the Holy See that it would consent to allow a return of the ancient Paschal Vigil to the night between Holy Saturday and the Sunday of the Resurrection.
The Supreme Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, accepting kindly these petitions and moved by His Own concern and solicitude for such an important matter, assigned the question to a special Commission of experts in the matter, who were asked to subject the whole question to diligent study and examination.
Finally, at the recommendation of the undersigned Cardinal Pro-Prefect of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, His Holiness has deigned to approve the rubrics which follow for a nocturnal celebration of the Paschal Vigil, to be restored for this year at the option and according to the prudent judgment of local Ordinaries, and by way of experiment. Wherefore, the same local Ordinaries, who will have made use of the faculty, are requested to inform the Congregation of Sacred Rites regarding the attendance and piety of the faithful and the success of the restored Paschal Vigil. It is forbidden, furthermore, to all publishers of books to print this rite without express permission of the Congregation of Sacred Rites.
All contrary things notwithstanding.
February 9, 1951
C. Card. Micara,
The ceremonial for the restored rite of Holy Saturday has a threefold division: The Divine Office; The Paschal Vigil; The Mass of the Vigil. The revisions in each are as follows:
I. DIVINE OFFICE.—The changes enjoined concern only the choral recitation of the Office. The Matins and Lauds of Holy Saturday may not be anticipated, but are to be said in the morning. At the end of Lauds and each of the Little Hours a new oration is to be joined to the Christus factus est antiphon, with the Miserere omitted. Vespers, to be said in the afternoon, are the same as on Holy Thursday except for the first antiphon and that of the Magnificat. Compline is also the same as on Thursday, but is concluded by its usual oration. The Christus factus est and Miserere are omitted from both Vespers and Compline.
II. PASCHAL VIGIL.—This service is to begin at an hour that will make possible the celebration of Mass about midnight.
(1) Blessing of the New Fire.—Even though the new fire is ignited outside the church, the blessing of it is no longer restricted to the door of the church or its vestibule, but may be held inside so as to be witnessed by the people. The blessing consists merely in the first of the present orations, Deus, qui per Filium Tuum.
(2) Blessing of the Paschal Candle.—The Paschal Candle is lighted directly and blessed immediately by the celebrant using a brief new formula: “Lumen Christi gloriose resurgentis dissipet tenebras cordis et mentis,” and the present oration, Veniat quaesumus. Prior to this, however, the celebrant with a stylus engraves upon the Candle a large cross, the letters Alpha and Omega above and below it, and the numerals of the current year; he then inserts the grains of incense. Special new invocations accompany each of these actions.
(3) Procession and Exsultet.—The clergy and people in attendance march in procession but behind the ministers and celebrant. A triple candle is not used but rather the lighted Paschal Candle itself. At the first Lumen Christi a candle carried by the celebrant is lighted, at the second the candles of the clergy, and at the third those of the faithful and the lights of the church. The Paschal Candle is then set up in the sanctuary and the Exsultet sung there, with the celebrant standing on the Epistle side and the subdeacon on the Gospel side. The Exsultet is sung without any interruption. The text remains the same throughout, except for the substitution of a petition for the civil ruler in place of the old prayer for the Emperor.
(4) Lessons.—A most radical change** has been made in this part of the ceremony. The lessons are reduced to only four, namely, the first, fourth, eighth and eleventh of the present twelve, the latter three retaining their present Tract. The lessons are read by a lector standing before the Paschal Candle. The celebrant does not read them himself, but merely listens to them seated upon the scamnum [bench or sedilia—Ed.]. The concluding oration is chanted by the celebrant. It is of particular interest to note that the rubric requires that at each Flectamus genua all are to remain kneeling for a brief period in silent prayer. No longer is this exhortation to be responded to merely by a symbolic gesture.
**Here ”a most radical change” refers simultaneously to the reduction of Lessons, the omission of the former Low Mass rubric of the celebrant repeating the texts of the other ministers (thus now having him merely sit and listen—this was also done for Solemn Mass and other ceremonies for the readings of the lector, subdeacon and deacon per the 1955 Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus and 1962 Missale Romanum) and the introduction of a new rubric for the Flectamus genua (though unfortunately still rarely observed correctly as described in the explanation).
(5) First Part of the Litany.—The first half of the Litany, up to the Propitius esto, follows immediately. The invocations are not doubled*** but chanted by two chanters and answered by all present.
***Another application of the celebrant not repeating what was said by another minister, in this case the schola.
(6) Blessing of Baptismal Water.—Except where the baptistry is separated from the church and an ancient custom requires the ceremony there, the baptismal water is to be blessed in the middle of the sanctuary before the whole congregation. The water and other requirements are to be prepared there during the first half of the Litany. The prayers and ceremonies remain unchanged, except for the omission of the chant Sicut cervus whenever there is a procession to the baptistry.
(7) Renewal of Baptismal Promises.—Whether baptismal water has been blessed or not, a new ceremony is to be observed. Standing in the center of the sanctuary, before the Paschal Candle, or else in the pulpit, the celebrant is to read a formula reminding the faithful of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to their own baptism and new life. He then leads them in a renewal of their baptismal promises and in a profession of faith and the recitation of the Our Father. The text of this ceremony is in Latin, but the notation is added that the vernacular can be used whenever its partial use is allowed in the ritual of baptism.
(8) Final Part of the Litany.—As previously, the chanters lead and the congregation responds. During this time the celebrant and ministers prepare the Mass in the sacristy, and the Paschal Candle is moved to the Gospel side and the altar made ready.
III. SOLEMN VIGIL MASS.—The Mass begins and continues as formerly, but without Vespers. The present Magnificat antiphon is used as the Communion antiphon. A special rubric is appended regarding the omission of ablutions by a priest who is later to celebrate the Mass of Sunday. This seems to suggest that the celebrant of the Vigil Mass may say another Mass on Easter Sunday, even apart from any faculty of bination [celebrating another Mass on the same day].
A sample from 2010.
As Supreme Pontiff, he enthusiastically labored on the Holy Week Reform.
At Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.
At St. Clement's Basilica, Rome. It is permanently fixed near the Gospel ambo.
A pic from the Caeremoniale Episcoporum showing the triple reed candle.
Candles in the Roman Rite
Read more about this interesting sacramental!
An MS depiction of a deacon chanting the Paschale Praeconium from an ambo with an Exsultet Roll.
A medieval Exsultet Roll preserved at the Pisa Cathedral.
Cover of the Restored Order of Holy Week printed in 1956.
Page from the OHS.
Page from the OHS.
The magnificent "Praeconium Paschale".