Given at the Paschal Vigil at Saint John the Evangelist, Calgary:
Alleluia! Christ our passover is sacrificed for us!
Therefore let us keep the feast! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Over the course of the past week we have travelled with our blessed Lord to the gates of the city of Jerusalem; we have supped with him in the cenacle as he kept the Passover with his disciples; we have stood with his blessed mother at the foot of the cross as he was brutally put to death. Now we come with raw emotion and profound joy to this celebration of new life—of perfected life—in which, through the resurrection of Christ, we are invited to share. Christ has hallowed hell! He has conquered sin! He has put death to death! As we will sing in that victory hymn of the Easter sequence, ‘Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, now lives to reign’.
We have sat this night in solemn vigil as the history of man’s creation, fall, and redemption has been retold to us once more in the words of sacred scripture. And we now turn our attention once more to the altar of the Lord, crowned again with the triumphant cross: no longer a sign of death but of life! In all of this, we are joined, too, by another sign, that of the paschal candle. Just as the cross was the focus of our celebration of the Lord’s passion, so this stands in our midst as the preeminent sign of the Lord’s resurrectionOf all the symbols we find in the Christian liturgy, the paschal candle speaks with a particular profundity and clarity of the mystery it signifies. The ancient text of the Exsultet makes reference to many of its characteristics. It is the sign of Christ, the light who dispels the darkness of this night. It is the pillar of flame that led the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt to the promised land of Jerusalem. It is the morning star of the new day which has surely broken over our fallen race.
Its composition, too, points to the beautiful mystery we come to celebrate. The wax, thought by the medievals to be produced by the virginal bee, is the purity that is given us in baptism and restored in the resurrection. The five grains of incense show the five glorious wounds by which the Lord won his victory over death. The alpha and the omega, and the years since the resurrection, etched into the wax, show that Christ is the Lord of both time and eternity, as he reigns supreme over all creation.
And the ritual with which the candle is honoured speaks further of its profound purpose. First it is lit from a fire started with a flint, a sign that even nature rejoices on so great a feast. Then it is solemnly blessed and marked and carried aloft through the church, cleansing with its light the route last taken by the cross on Good Friday. It is enthroned by the altar, so that by the light of Christ we may hear again the narrative of our salvation. It is honoured with incense, as we offer our prayers to God, and it is serenaded with a solemn and ritualised love poem of the Church in the words of the Exsultet. Then it is plunged three times into the waters as a sign of the regeneration and new life that flows from the Church’s womb.
For our new sister in Christ, Christan, who has been night in these newly hallowed waters, the flame of this great symbol is passed on in the candle given her by the priest, who himself represents Christ. And that flame already burns around us in the lamps and candles of the church’s shrines. It is that paschal flame that gives honour to the saints depicted in this beautiful church, just as the resurrection – which that flame signifies – is the means of their sharing in the life of the heavenly kingdom. Christan: it is our hope and your vocation to spend yourself – to burn yourself out as the flame of a candle – in order to be with those saints one day as one of their number and to be yourself counted among the blessed.
Throughout this paschal season, then, as the joy of the resurrection fuels us toward the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Ghost in the pentecostal winds of Whitsun, may the flame of this sanctified candle keep us fixed on the glories it represents. May the flame, which has been passed to us in baptism, continue to burn deep within us. And may the daystar, who is Christ himself, come to find that flame still burning in his Church and in us, that the light of his resurrection may dispel the darkness of this world, and pervade every corner and crevice of men’s hearts, that his victory over death may be known, and the fruits of that victory be felt, in every family, in every home, and in every generation.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!