The blessing of the Paschal Candle is one of the most imposing ceremonies of Holy Saturday. Some have attributed the origin of this rite to Pope St. Zosimus, who reigned from 417 to 418; but the words of the Roman Breviary, in the 6th Lesson of this holy Pope’s office,[On the 9th of February] lead us to infer that it was already in use in the Basilicas or greater churches and that Losimus extended it to the parishes: “he granted permission to the parishes to bless the Paschal Candle.”
This blessed candle is much larger than those that are commonly used in ecclesiastical ceremonies. It was customary in some dioceses to have one weighing thirty-three pounds, to represent the years of our Saviour’s mortal life. The wax of which it is made is an emblem of the glorified Body of the Risen Jesus, and therefore the candle is lighted on all the Sundays of the Easter time, but extinguished and removed after the gospel of Ascension Day, to indicate that He whom it represents is no longer amongst His children under the outward appearance of humanity, but only under the sacramental species of bread and wine.
There are five incisions in the Paschal Candle, arranged in the form of a cross, into which five grains of incense are put during the blessing. The holes represent the Five Wounds, the marks of which our Lord keeps, and will for ever keep, in His Most Sacred Body. Like five suns, those Wounds are now shedding divine lustre over the blessed Court of Heaven, and are, according to theologians, the mute but most efficacious intercession of our Lord Jesus Christ with his Eternal Father for the members of the Church Militant and Church Suffering. The grains of incense represent the spices with which the Holy Corpse was embalmed by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
The deacon of the Mass, not the celebrant priest, blesses the Paschal Candle, to show that the two disciples whom we have just mentioned, not the Apostles, had the precious privilege granted to them of preparing the dead Body for entombment, and that our Lord manifested Himself, on the day of His Resurrection, to Mary Magdalen, and the pious women before He appeared to St. Peter or any other of the Apostles.
The prose or preface which the deacon chants in the ceremony of the blessing is called the Exultet, from the word with which it begins. It is the composition of the great St. Augustine, who died in the fifth century, and is one of the most beautiful and touching relics of the ancient Liturgy, which has come down to us.
A list of the moveable feasts was sometimes attached to the Paschal Candle, or even cut into the wax. This custom existed at Rouen and Cluny until the last century. The present Roman Pontifical prescribes that the moveable feasts of the year be proclaimed on the festival of the Epiphany. Flowers were profusely wreathed around the candle. “What more fitting and festive,” says an old Ambrosian Missal, “than to adorn the Flower of Jesse with flowers?”
In the blessing of the baptismal font the Paschal Candle is plunged three times into the water, the celebrant praying meanwhile that the virtue of the Holy Spirit may descend into the sacred font. The immersion of the candle is emblematic of Christ’s descent into the waters of the Jordan to receive Baptism, and its elevation, of our resurrection, as the effect of the Sacrament, from sin to a life of grace.
Christ has redeemed us, by His Passion, from the bondage of Satan, the world and the flesh: a bondage a thousand times more galling than was that of Egypt to the children of Israel. The Paschal Candle represents Him as our Guide through the desert of life to the Promised Land of Heaven. When lighted, it is the pillar of fire that illumined the Hebrew camp by night; when extinguished, it is the cloud that directed their march by day.
Jesus! may Thy Easter Candle keep us ever in mind of Thee! May it teach us to love Thee and to fear Thee, for Thou are set up both for the resurrection and the ruin of many in Israel. That resurrection is Thy gilt; the ruin, if, unfortunately, it should be ours, will be of our own making: Destruction is thy own, O Israel; thy help is only in Me (Osee, xiii. 9.)