Thursday, 9 April 2020
The Paschal Candle
Every year, on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, all Catholic churches celebrate the Midnight Mass. It actually usually starts at about 11:00pm because there are some preliminaries beforehand which serve as a good reminder of the real meaning of Easter.
The congregation meets outside in the grounds of the church and a small bonfire is lit and prayers said. This "new fire", symbolizing our eternal life in Christ.
A single Paschal Candle is lit from that fire. It is usually a large candle that symbolizes the risen Christ. It is often decorated with a cross, symbols of the resurrection, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, (the beginning and the end), and the year in which Easter is celebrated. The term "Paschal" concerns Easter or Passover. Here is a selection:
The Paschal candle represents Christ, the Light of the World.
The pure beeswax of which the candle is made represents the sinless Christ who was formed in the womb of His Mother. The wick signifies His humanity, the flame, His Divine Nature, both soul and body. Five grains of incense inserted into the candle in the form of a cross recall the aromatic spices with which His Sacred Body was prepared for the tomb, and of the five wounds in His hands, feet, and side.
After the candle is lit, outside the church, the congregation enters the church. When they are at their pews the lights in the church are switched off and they are in total darkness.
During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night the priest or deacon carries the candle, which has been lit from the new fire outside, in procession into the dark church.
The priest pauses three times and sings or says, "The light of Christ," and the people respond, "Thanks be to God."
As the candle is carried into the church, the priest stops temporarily and its flame is used to light candles held by members of the congregation. This symbolizes the spreading of the light of Christ into the congregation and the world. Slowly, one candle lights another and the whole church is lit by many candle lights alone as the priest and congregation sing.
The Exsultet is sung or said after the Paschal candle is placed in its stand. Once the lit Paschal Candle is placed near the Altar the Easter Midnight Mass commences.
It is customary for the Paschal candle to burn at all Masses from Easter through Pentecost. In some churches it is lit until Ascension Thursday.
After the Easter season, the Paschal candle is typically placed near the baptismal font. It should burn at baptisms, representing the new life in Christ that we share in baptism. The newly baptised person may be given a small baptismal candle that is lit from the Paschal candle. It may also be carried in procession at burials and placed near the coffin as a symbol of resurrection life.
Now let me tell you of a personal experience.
Remember, this is a very solemn occasion. The church is in total darkness with the congregation awaiting the entrance of the priest with the lit Paschal candle in hand.
One year I was one of the helpers at the Easter Vigil.
The candle had been lit from the fire outside the church. The priest carried the candle into the dark church. He chanted in Latin "Lumen Christi" (The light of Christ), and everyone responded, "Deo Gratias" (Thanks be to God).
He then stopped in the centre aisle and two altar servers lit small candles from the Paschal candle he was carrying and proceeded to light the many candles each member of the congregation held in their hands.
At this point, one member of the congregation got out his cigarette lighter and lit his candle and that of others near him.
The priest turned his head towards me and whispered silently, "There's always one ... isn't there?", then he moved a few more paces, stopped, and sang a second time "Lumen Christi".
I could not control my giggles at the way he reacted to the situation.
Obviously, the significance of the whole event had escaped one Brain of Britain!
Another tradition in our church, and no doubt in many others is the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.
In our church twelve people are chosen from the congregation and the priest washes their feet in memory of what Jesus did all those years ago.
At the time of Jesus, however, things were different. Streets were not as modern and clean as they are now in our towns and cities. They were dusty, muddy if it rained, and no doubt full of deposits from horses, camels and cattle. People wore sandals or even walked in bare feet.
So when they entered a house as guests washing their feet must have been an essential task rather than the symbolism it is in today’s churches. A task left to the servants to undertake.
When Jesus offered, insisted even, in washing His disciples’ feet He was teaching them, and us, a very important lesson.
Here is God Himself, born in poverty, raised in poverty, living in poverty, submitting Himself to perform a task reserved for servants.
Perhaps the disciples didn’t understand the significance of what Jesus had just done. Maybe we don’t understand it ourselves right now.
Yet, He was preparing for an even greater submission and humiliation for us.
Dying a most horrible and painful death on the Cross. Just for us.
Imagine for a moment if Jesus was in person in your home right now. Imagine He asked to wash your feet before sitting down for a meal.
How would you react? Would you agree that your Master and Lord got down on His knees to wash your feet? Or would you protest like Peter?
This is for real. Not something that happened to the disciples years ago. Right now, Jesus is asking to wash your feet. Your reaction is vital to your present ... and to your future ... for eternity.
Now does the significance of that event make sense?