Candles at the Gospel Reading

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Candles at the Gospel Reading

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

Q: During Easter season at the reading of the Gospel at Mass on Sundays, are the ministers dispensed from carrying lit candles to the ambo if there is an Easter candle? — F.A., Rio de Mouro, Portugal

A: In principle, there is no such "dispensation" except during the Easter Vigil itself, because on this night the Easter candle itself suffices to honor the risen Lord in his Gospel.

The fact that the liturgical books specify that on this night Gospel candles are not used implies that they should be used on all other solemn occasions. At the same time, we recall that these candles, like incense, are recommended but not obligatory elements of the celebration of Mass and may be omitted.

During the rest of Eastertide the Easter candle and those that accompany the Gospel have different symbolic values.

The Easter candle represents the risen Christ and, while it is often placed near the ambo, this is not the only possibility. The other possibilities are at the center of the sanctuary or next to the altar. Because of this, the Easter candle is not necessarily or primarily associated with the Gospel.

The candles that accompany the Gospel are a means of honoring and emphasizing the particular centrality of the Gospel in salvation history and as the high point of the Liturgy of the Word.

As the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum points out, these liturgical honors also establish a certain parallel with the honors attributed to the Blessed Sacrament, which is also accompanied by lighted torches and incense. This serves to underline the particular real presence of Christ in the liturgical proclamation of the Word, though without detriment to the unique nature of the substantial real presence of the Eucharist.

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Follow-up: Candles at the Gospel Reading [5-11-2010]

After our reply regarding the Easter candle (see April 27), a couple of similar questions came to mind.

A reader from Hawarden, North Wales, asked: "I wonder if you can help. Some eccentric, but at least semiofficial, instruction came our way some years ago, that after the feast of the Ascension the paschal candle was to be extinguished but left in the sanctuary until after Pentecost Sunday (when, naturally it was to retire to the baptistry). Is it obligatory to have it unlit during the great novena to the Holy Spirit?"

In our column of April 3, 2007, we gave a brief history of the Easter candle. In that column we mentioned that effectively there was a long-standing custom of removing the Easter candle after the Ascension. A rubric introduced by St. Pius V for that day indicated that the candle should be quenched after the Gospel of the principal Mass.

This rubric, still in force in the extraordinary form, is probably the inspiration for the semiofficial indication received by our reader.

Present norms, however, foresee the habitual use of the paschal candle for the entire Easter season until the final Mass of Pentecost, after which it is brought to the baptistry.

Another correspondent, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, presented the following case: Our liturgy coordinator is insisting that the Easter candle be lit at all Masses during the month of November. Is this permissible, since it is outside of the Easter season?"

I would imagine that the coordinator's logic derives from the fact that in many places the entire month of November is dedicated to special Masses and prayers for the deceased. Since the Easter candle is used at funerals, then it would appear coherent to use it during this time also.

However, the use of the Easter candle near the coffin at funerals has a precise ritual meaning with respect to bodily resurrection that is not found in Masses in suffrage for the departed. Otherwise, the candle would be used almost every day, as most Masses are celebrated for the benefit of some deceased person.

Even if the November Masses use the specific formulas of Masses for the dead and violet vestments, they would not be funeral Masses as such and so the paschal candle is not used.

Although I am unaware of the practice elsewhere, it is always possible that this use of the Easter candle is a long-standing custom of a particular church. Liturgically speaking, however, it is somewhat anomalous and I do not think it is a correct use of the Easter candle's symbolic meaning.


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