2 Paschal Candles; Lights On at Vigil

Author: Father Edward McNamara


2 Paschal Candles; Lights On at Vigil


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Our pastor found himself in a dilemma last Easter. He was appointed in charge of two parishes, but only able to celebrate one Vigil Mass for the parishes at the larger of the churches. The problem encountered was how to bless two paschal candles! In the absence of any advice from the diocesan authorities, and with no trace of any liturgical norm to hand, he decided to bless and engrave them both, but only lighted one (which the deacon duly carried). He himself carried the other candle in his arms and left it on the altar to be taken to the other parish church afterward. At the other parish church, he lighted that second paschal candle immediately before the first Mass of Easter and carried it in procession into the church singing the Lumen Christi three times before continuing with the Eucharistic celebration as normal. I thought this was done very movingly but, as always, some disagreed! — B.C., Birmingham, England. Q: I would like to know the exact moment in which, during the Easter Vigil, all the lights of the church should be lit: Is it immediately before the chanting of the Exsultet starts, or at the intoning of the Gloria during Mass? Up to some time ago, if I am not mistaken, it was before the Exsultet starts. I do not know if it has been changed recently. — L.B., Malta

A: Regarding the two paschal candles: There do not seem to be any recent guidelines as to how to handle this particular situation. It is quite possible that some bishops' conferences have already proposed solutions that I am unaware of.

Although the pastor's action was an honest attempt to come to terms with a liturgical conundrum, I think it was imperfect in some ways.

First of all, the liturgical books and guidelines insist very much that only one paschal candle be prepared for the celebration. For example, the 1988 Circular Letter on the preparation for Easter published by the Congregation for Divine Worship states:

"The paschal candle should be prepared, which for effective symbolism must be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size, so that it may evoke the truth that Christ is the light of the world. It is blessed with the signs and words prescribed in the Missal or by the Conference of Bishops."

This insistence has to do with the symbolism involved of the one light of Christ from which all the other candles are lit. This the pastor well understood by not lighting the second paschal candle.

Where I believe he made a mistake, at least with respect to present norms, was in blessing and carrying the other candle and in repeating the rite of entrance on Easter morning. The nocturnal nature of this rite does not readily lend itself to repetition.

What then is a pastor to do? Although eventually a better solution might be officially established as the question reflects a genuine pastoral difficulty, we could momentarily take inspiration from the norms in force before the Second Vatican Council.

At that time, if Mass or the Divine Office was celebrated at a side altar during Eastertide, it was permitted to use a second paschal candle provided it had been blessed and had the five grains of incense.

Therefore, in the case described above, the pastor could privately bless and prepare the other candle at a convenient moment after the Easter Vigil and simply set it up in the other parish before the first Mass with no particular ceremonies.

After all, even if the Vigil had been celebrated the night before, people attending Mass on Easter Sunday usually find the Easter candle already set up and no special ceremony is carried out. It is appropriate, however, to incense the candle along with the altar at the beginning of Mass.

Regarding the appropriate moment for turning on the lights: The rubrics for the Vigil clearly indicate that they are lit after the third Lumen Christi and before the Exultet.

There seems to be a custom in some places to await the end of the Exultet or even the Gloria. And some eminent liturgists even recommend that, whenever possible, the amount of light should be gradually increased until the church is fully illuminated at the Gloria.

While I can appreciate the ideas behind this gradual approach I personally think that the rubrics should be followed as that is what the Church asks of us. I also believe that turning on the lights after the third Lumen Christi better captures the dramatic and transforming suddenness of the Resurrection. ZE06041120

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Follow-up: Easter Vigil [5-2-2006]

After our piece on the Easter Vigil (April 11) a Florida reader asked: "Are you aware of any exceptions granted by Rome to having the Easter Vigil begin before sundown on Saturday evening? I am quite upset that all the churches in the diocese I have moved to a few years ago, even the cathedral itself, consistently begin the service before sundown."

The following document is taken from the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, Volume 37, should answer this question. This statement is not official law, but it is an official explanation of the law. I thank the site catholicliturgy.com for making it easily accessible.

During the past 30 years, the BCL Newsletter has addressed the question of the time for the Easter Vigil on several occasions. Each time, the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Roman Calendar, No. 21, has been cited:

"The Easter Vigil, during the holy night when Christ rose from the dead, ranks as the 'mother of all vigils' (Augustine, Sermon 219: PL 38, 1088). Keeping watch, the Church awaits Christ's resurrection and celebrates it in the sacraments. Accordingly, the entire celebration of this vigil should take place at night, that is, it should either begin after nightfall or end before the dawn of Sunday.

"In 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments addressed this question with greater specificity in its 'Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts.' After repeating the rubric cited above, the Congregation noted that 'This rule is to be taken according to its strictest sense. Reprehensible are those abuses and practices which have crept in many places in violation of this ruling, whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that it is customary to celebrate anticipated Masses (no. 78).'

"The intention of the 'Missale Romanum' is clear: the Easter Vigil is to take place in darkness. Thus the approved translation of 'post initium noctis' is 'after nightfall,' that is, after the time in the evening when daylight is last visible. This time is roughly equivalent to astronomical twilight, which is defined by the Naval Observatory as the time after which 'the Sun does not contribute to sky illumination.' Tables of sunset and astronomical twilight for each locality in the United States are available at the Naval Observatory website.

"In Washington, DC, by way of example, sunset will take place at 6:45pm on Holy Saturday, April 15, 2001. However, Astronomical Twilight in the nation's capital will not occur until 8:21pm, or 96 minutes later. Likewise, sunset in Los Angeles occurs at 6:25pm, but Astronomical Twilight (when 'the Sun does not contribute to sky illumination') occurs at 7:53pm, about 88 minutes later. While some pastoral flexibility concerning the astronomical mathematics of the question is reasonable, it is clearly the intent of the Church that the Easter Vigil not begin until it is dark."

Another Floridian asked: "I recently attended an Easter Vigil service and noticed that the Prayer of the Faithful was omitted. When I inquired, I was told that it would have made the celebration too long. Is it permissible to do so?"

The rubrics in the missal say: "After the people have been sprinkled, the priest returns to the chair. The Profession of Faith is omitted, and the priest directs the general intercessions, in which the newly baptized [if there are any] take part for the first time."

Therefore it seems that there should always be a Prayer of the Faithful at the vigil. That the rubrics indicate them is a sign of their importance, since the intercessions are usually omitted whenever the litanies of the saints are proclaimed during Mass, the usual case during the vigil in a parish or cathedral where at least the baptismal font is blessed.

Remember: The faithful who assist at the vigil are fully prepared for, and even expect, a long celebration. Even so, if truly necessary for sound pastoral reasons, the rubrics do foresee the possibility of reducing the number of readings and using shorter versions of some readings.

The Prayer of the Faithful probably lasts about four to six minutes, hardly an insupportable burden to bear in order to properly welcome the risen Lord. ZE06050220

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