When to Extinguish the Easter Candle

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


When to Extinguish the Easter Candle

ROME, 17 MAY 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Some years back, in the calendar of the diocesan yearbook, apparently for all three Welsh dioceses, a quaint enthusiast instructed that the paschal candle should be extinguished at the Ascension but left in the sanctuary unlit for the novena of Pentecost. This directive was never repeated but has permanently confused people. Is it correct, is it optional, or is it a piece of ill-devised symbolism for the absence of the Lord, who is always present? We would be so grateful for your advice. — S.M., Hawarden, Wales

A: It is quite probable that this suggestion was inspired in part by the custom of the extraordinary form in which the Easter candle is extinguished after the Gospel during the principal Mass of Ascension Thursday.

In this ritual context the candle symbolizes the presence of the glorified risen Christ. It is therefore logical, in the extraordinary form, to extinguish the candle at the Ascension.

The rubrics of the extraordinary form, unlike the indication of the aforementioned calendar, foresee the removal of the candle from the sanctuary after this Mass. The indication of leaving it unlit until Pentecost would appear to be an attempt to reconcile the earlier custom with the clear indication in the present rubrics that the candle remain until Pentecost Sunday.

In fact, the present rubrics foresee a much wider use of the paschal candle during the year than the extraordinary form. In the latter the use of the candle is limited to the more solemn celebrations during the 40 days between Easter and Ascension. Even during this period it is not used for Masses for the dead and other Masses requiring violet vestments such as rogation Masses.

With respect to the ordinary form the Circular Letter on the Easter Feasts states the following: "99. 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 baptistry, 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."

This expanded use also explains why, in most parishes, the norm that the Easter candle be renewed each year is also a practical necessity. The extraordinary form is less demanding on this point.

The indication that the candle should be lit "at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations" of Eastertide means that it is not required to light it at all Masses and community celebrations of the Divine Office. This possibility is not excluded, however, especially in communities such as seminaries and religious houses that regularly celebrate the liturgy with some solemnity but where baptisms and funerals are rarely celebrated.

* * *

Follow-up: When to Extinguish the Easter Candle [5-31-2011]

In the wake of our May 17 column, several readers asked about the use of the Easter candle. A Welsh reader asked: "In the extraordinary form it is directed that, in Eastertide, the paschal candle must not be lit during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. I can remember that, in pre-conciliar times, if exposition and Benediction followed immediately after vespers, a server would extinguish the paschal candle at the end of vespers. I can find no mention of this in the ordinary rite. Does this mean that the paschal candle should be lit when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in Eastertide?"

The ordinary forms simply states that it is lit during solemn liturgical celebrations during the Easter season. Nothing is said regarding exposition.

As our reader says, the extraordinary form of the Roman rite does not allow the candle to be lit during exposition or Benediction. An exception to this rule is when solemn vespers are celebrated before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. If Benediction immediately follows the vespers, then the candle remains lit.

This overall criterion holds true for the ordinary form. If vespers, or some other solemn liturgical celebration, is carried out before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, then the candle could be lit. This could be done throughout the exposition even if the celebration does not take up the whole time of adoration.

However, since exposition by itself does not constitute a liturgical celebration then, as a general rule, the candle need not be lit. This would be especially true for prolonged exposition.

A California reader asked: "Is it permissible to light the paschal candle at confirmations which are celebrated outside of the Easter season? Also, would it be appropriate to sing the Litany of Saints at some point of the confirmation liturgy? In many places the widespread separation of confirmation from its traditional place among the other sacraments of initiation has led to much theological confusion. My thought is that these two liturgical actions, alongside the sprinkling rite and the renewal of baptismal promises, would better highlight the deep connection of the sacrament of confirmation to the sacrament of baptism."

While these are not bad ideas, and could even be pastorally useful, it is not permissible to add to the approved rites.

Only a bishops' conference is able to propose permanent adaptations to some of the rites for its country. These proposals have to be approved by the Holy See.

The process usually takes years, since it is necessary to reflect long and hard on any proposed changes; this often requires thinking in terms of possible effects over decades and centuries.

Adjustments in rites eventually color the spiritual concepts behind them and the way they are lived and perceived.

Thus we would have to reflect whether the use of the Easter candle (probably along with other candles) might eventually put so much stress on the renewal of baptismal promises as to shift attention from the primary signs of the sacrament of confirmation. Likewise, since the Litany of Saints takes the place of the prayer of the faithful we would have to explore if the special general intercessions found in the ritual are not preferable to the litany.

Although this process is arduous, it is not impossible. For example, a few years ago the Italian bishops' conference published a revised rite of marriage which included a Litany of Saints, especially of those who lived in holy matrimony.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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