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 apostles; 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 harrowed hell! He has conquered sin! He has put death to death! As we have sung in that great victory hymn, the Easter Sequence: “Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, now lives to reign.”
Last evening we sat in darkness in this very church in solemn vigil, as the familiar history of man’s creation, fall, and redemption was told once more through the words of sacred scripture. Now, as we continue our celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord—a celebration that will go on for some eight days—we turn our attention once more to his altar, festooned in splendour, and crowned once more with the triumphant cross: no longer a sign of death to be feared, but of life, to be embraced!
In this, we are joined, too, by another sign: that of the paschal candle. Just as the Cross was the focus of our commemoration of the Lord’s passion, so this paschal candle stands in our midst as the preeminent sign of the Lord’s resurrection. Of all the many symbols we find in the Christian liturgy, the paschal candle speaks with a particular eloquence 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 slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Jerusalem. It is the morning star of the new day, which in Christ has surely broken over our fallen race.
Its very composition, too, points to the beautiful mystery we gather to celebrate this day. The wax, thought by the medievals to be produced by the virginal bee, is the purity that was given us in baptism, and which is restored in that great sacrament of the resurrection: the sacrament of penance, of confession. The five grains of incense inserted into the wax of the candle by the Priest show the five glorious wounds by which the Lord won his victory over death. The alpha and the omega, and the marking of the candle with the years since the incarnation, etched into the wax, show that Christ is Lord of time and eternity, reigning supreme over all creation.
And the ritual with which the candle is honoured speaks further of its mystical purpose. First it is lit from a fire started with a flint, a sign that even nature rejoices at the sanctification bestowed upon it be Christ’s victory. Then it is solemnly blessed, 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 the incense used to set aside things for God, and it is serenaded with the solemn and ritualised love poem of the Church in the words of the Exsultet. Finally it is plunged three times into the new waters of the font: a sign of the fecundity and new life that flows from the Church’s womb and which those baptized in the Easter season rejoice in a particular way.
For them, as for all the newly initiated into the mystery of life in Christ, the flame of this great symbol is passed on to them in the candle given them by the Priest, who himself represents Christ. And it is that same flame that surrounds us in the lamps and candles of the church’s shrines, that burns before the Blessed Sacrament until it is once more extinguished in the anguish of the Sacred Triduum, and that lights even the holy altar: itself a sign of the sacrifice fulfilled in Christ in the Easter mystery.
Throughout this paschal season, then, as the joy of the resurrection fuels us toward the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the winds of Pentecost, 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.