Spreading the light

Paschal candle dramatic highlight of Easter Vigil

Photo courtesy of Matthew Callan Monsignor Robert Mazur poses for a photo with Stephanie Kilcoyne, who makes the decorations for the Paschal candle, and Jim Seiler, who made the candle, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona.

There’s a moment at the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil Mass that seems to almost transcend time, a scene that could be of present day or long ago.

It’s when the only light at first glows from the tall Paschal candle. Then it spreads as the priest lights his taper and turns to another to share the light. The process repeats until all the people in the church hold tapers lit from the flame of the Paschal candle.

The contrast of light and darkness is rich with imagery and depth of meaning, said Monsignor Robert Mazur, rector of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona and director of liturgy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“Light is a very basic Christian symbol,” Mazur said. “Jesus Christ is the light of the world. … and (the Paschal candle) is our symbol that the light of Christ has shattered the darkness of death.”

As rector of the Cathedral for more than two decades, Mazur has stood in the sanctuary next to the altar of the large church at many Easter Vigil Masses and looked out at the sea of flickering tapers illuminating the darkness. The sight never fails to move him, he said.

“It’s such a powerful symbol, to see the whole church lit by natural light,” he said.

Inside the Easter Vigil

The Catholic Easter Vigil Mass starts at nightfall on Holy Saturday, which is part of what’s called the Easter Triduum that runs from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The Catholic faithful gather outside the worship space at nightfall on Saturday, such as on the portico of the Cathedral, where a fire is started in a brazier. From the fire, the priest lights the Paschal candle which he then carries into the darkened church.

He walks down the center aisle with the candle, stopping three times to sing, “Christ is our light.” He then proceeds toward the altar while the people light their candles from the flame that he has provided from the Paschal candle.

The congregation’s candles remain lit during the singing of the “Exsultet,” or Hymn of Praise, and for the reading of several Biblical Scriptures and Psalms. They’re extinguished when the church’s lights come on at the singing of the “Gloria,” heard for the first time in 40 days since Lent began on Ash Wednesday.

Later in the Easter Vigil Mass, the tapers are relit when the congregation renews its baptismal promises. The Easter Vigil is also the time when people converting to the Catholic faith complete the process, which can include baptism, confirmation or both.

Members of the congregation who are already practicing Catholics renew their baptismal promises to reinforce the vows that either they made or were made for them at the time they were baptized, Mazur said.

“We are reinforcing the promise that having been claimed once for Christ, who is the light, that we do not walk in darkness and sin,” he said.

The Paschal candle

and its history

As with many rituals in the Catholic church, the Paschal candle and its part in the Easter Vigil date back centuries, Mazur said. The early church used the candle with little change in the ritual to the present day, he said. The candle is lit from Holy Saturday through scheduled Masses of the Easter season, in addition to any baptisms and funerals.

“Receive the light of Christ, walk always as a child of Christ,” are part of the words prayed over people newly baptized as they’re given a candle lit from the Paschal candle. “May (you) keep always the flame of faith alive in (your) heart.”

At the Cathedral, the candle remains by the ambo, or the podium from which Bible readings are read near the altar, of the church until after the 50 days of the Easter season have concluded. It is then moved next to the baptism font by the doors of the Cathedral. It’s removed on Ash Wednesday.

Unlike most other churches, however, the Cathedral is rare in that it doesn’t buy its Paschal candle. A former Cathedral rector, Monsignor Paul Panza, who has since passed away, had the idea to make the candle. He also made the decorations that go on the side of it, which represent aspects of the Catholic faith.

The practice has continued with Mazur, who became rector in 1995. He came up with the idea of asking parishes in the diocese for any leftover bits of candles to make the new Paschal candle at the Cathedral for the upcoming year. He said he likes the symbolism because the Cathedral is the diocesan church, belonging to all Catholics in the diocese, so it’s fitting to have a Paschal candle made of wax from churches throughout the diocese.

For many years, parishioner Jim Seiler has made the candle, which is 6 feet high and on a stand. Another member of the parish, Stephanie Kilcoyne, has made the needlepoint decorations that represent such concepts as life and death, baptism and the Eucharist or Holy Communion, for the past four years.

Use of the Paschal candle in other Christian faiths

Some other Christian traditions use a Paschal candle while others do not. For example, the Lutherans, who in many ways have rituals that are similar to the Catholics, have an Easter Vigil service of Holy Communion at which time, just like the Catholics, a new Paschal candle is used, said Pastor Greg Harbaugh of Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg.

The time that the candle is used is also like that of the Catholics, he said.

“The candle stays lighted during our worship services from Easter to Pentecost,” he said. “We light the candle anytime there are white paraments (cloth coverings) on the altar, and at baptisms and funerals. After Easter, the candle is moved to beside the baptism font.”

The Lutherans, like many other churches, purchase their candle, which is filled with oil. It is decorated with a cross and the Greek symbols of the Alpha and the Omega, to represent the concept that Jesus Christ or God is the beginning and the end, as proclaimed in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

The Lutheran Paschal candle has the current year inscribed on it plus brass nails “to remind us of the five wounds of Christ,” Harbaugh said.

The meaning of the candle is the same to the Lutherans as it is to the Catholics.

“The candle symbolizes that Christ is the light of the world,” he said.

But the Paschal candle hasn’t always been a part of the Lutheran service of Holy Communion, Harbaugh said.

The candle was one of the rituals left behind as part of the Reformation and for centuries the Lutherans did not use one in their worship. But in the 1970s when the Lutherans underwent a liturgical renewal movement, they became more ecumenical in some ways and included some of their past practices, Harbaugh said.

“Most Lutheran churches I’ve been in around the area now use the Paschal candle,” he said. “It kind of caught on and became popular. It’s a rite that had not been used for generations and has kind of been revived.”

The Presbyterians also left the Paschal candle behind at the Reformation and unlike the Lutherans, most of their churches haven’t embraced it again at Easter. However, many Presbyterian churches do have an Advent wreath at Christmastime, in the weeks leading up to and including Christmas, which includes a white candle in the center of the wreath symbolizing Christ, said the Rev. Joy Kaufmann, general Presbyter of the Huntingdon Presbytery, which encompasses Presbyterian churches in Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, Centre, Clearfield and Mifflin counties.

“Ordinarily, Presbyterians use a Paschal candle or Christ candle in an Advent wreath at Christmastime, and we would tend not to have a Paschal candle at Easter,” she said.

But she said she has heard that one Presbyterian church in Philipsburg brings out its Advent wreath during Lent and lights one candle for each Sunday in Lent, then lights the white candle in the center on Easter Sunday, symbolizing the risen Christ. The concept is to tie together the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, Kaufmann said.

She also said that Presbyterians have undergone their own liturgical renewal in recent times. Although they still maintain their more Spartan-like tradition, a few churches like one Kaufmann was at in Harrisburg have picked up ideas like the Paschal candle at Easter.

“With some traditions, I think we’re getting closer to each other as the years unfold,” she said. “But it’s still pretty unusual for a Presbyterian church to have a Paschal candle at Easter.”

As for the Methodists, use of the Paschal candle is mixed, said the Rev. Dr. Kathleen Kind, district superintendent for the Altoona District of the United Methodist Churches.

“In the United Methodist Churches, the Paschal candle is sometimes used and sometimes not used,” she said. “For example, I served a church that had a Paschal candle, and they lit it each week as they would any candle.”

But she said usually when the candle is lit, it is done so with purposeful intent.

“However, per the significance of the Paschal candle, we would traditionally light it during the Great 50 Days of Easter, baptisms and funerals of baptized persons,” she said. “In reality, there are not many United Methodist churches that have Paschal candles that light them for these particular reasons. This is not a common practice. When a United Methodist church uses a Paschal candle, it is a very intentional choice.”