Lighting the Easter Candle

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Lighting the Easter Candle


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

Q: Quick question on the paschal candle: When in the sanctuary during Eastertide, is it to be lit during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction? As an altar boy some 30 or so years ago I remember the Easter candle being solemnly extinguished at the end of vespers and before adoration and solemn Benediction. Is this still correct liturgical practice? Was it ever? — A.B., Palm Beach, Florida

A: There is very little in the way of present rules regarding the use of the Easter candle. Of the few precise norms, there is No. 99 of "Paschales Solemnitatis," a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on the Easter celebrations. To wit:

"The paschal candle has its proper place either by the ambo or by the altar and should be lit at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season until Pentecost Sunday, whether at Mass or at Morning and Evening Prayer. After the Easter season, the candle should be kept with honor in the baptistery, so that in the celebration of baptism, the candles of the baptized may be lit from them. In the celebration of funerals the paschal candle should be placed near the coffin to indicate that the death of a Christian is his own Passover. The paschal candle should not otherwise be lit nor placed in the sanctuary outside the Easter season."

The expression that it should be lit "at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season" would seem to allow for a certain degree of flexibility. For example, a parish with numerous baptisms and funerals during the year might opt to light it only on Sundays and solemnities so that it lasts the whole year long. A religious community with few celebrations outside of Eastertide might prefer to light it for all paschal liturgies.

The present norms don't mention anything regarding lighting the Easter candle during exposition. But if we may be guided by the norms applicable to the extraordinary form, these would indicate that in general it would not be done.

According to the collection "Decreta Authentica" of the then Congregation of Rites, the Easter candle could not be lit only for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (Decree 3479,3). It would be lit, however, if vespers were celebrated before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, or Benediction followed immediately after vespers (Decree 4383,1-2).

The principle behind these decrees would appear to be that lighting the Easter candle is reserved for liturgical acts celebrated with some degree of solemnity. All the same, it is not incompatible with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament if a liturgical celebration is held during adoration.

Likewise, although the earlier decrees spoke only of vespers, the present norms include lauds and could perhaps be extended to other hours of the Liturgy of the Hours if celebrated with some solemnity.

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Follow-up: Lighting the Easter Candle [5-5-2009]

Pursuant to our comments on the non-use of the Easter candle during exposition (see April 21), a reader from Scotland added an interesting explanation for which I am grateful. He wrote: "I thought you might be interested in my understanding of why the paschal candle is nor lit during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the extraordinary form: I was always told that, as the candle represents the Risen Lord and the Sanctissimus is the Risen Lord, it was not right for the symbol to be used in the presence of the reality."

Several readers also inquired as to how to proceed when a parish has two churches or at least other spaces for celebrating Mass during Eastertide and other seasons. As we wrote on April 11, 2006, only one candle may be used during the Easter vigil. But it should be possible to simply bless any extra candles required for other chapels after the vigil is over and subsequently set it up in the other church or chapel without ceremony before the first Easter Mass. These candles may be smaller but should have the grains of incense.

The norms in force for the extraordinary form did not require a new paschal candle every year but only that it should be replaced when notably consumed. For commodity's sake, one was also allowed to bless a smaller candle for the vigil and then expose a larger one for Eastertide, provided that it had been blessed at least once.

In the present rite the candle used for the Easter Vigil should be new. In places where the vigil has not been celebrated, such as weekday and convent chapels, I think it is legitimate to continue using previously blessed Easter candles if still in decent condition. If necessary and possible, the inscription of the current year may be adjusted.

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