The meaning of the Easter Candle has evolved and deepened over the centuries.
More properly, we refer to it as the Paschal Candle since it is one of our most prominent symbols of the Paschal Mystery (Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension).
Early Christians used oil lamps for light at their gatherings. Archeologists find evidence of such lamps in a variety of settings, including the catacombs.
Early in the church’s liturgical experience, these lamps took on spiritual significance, representing the light of Christ and the lives of faithful Christians (and communities) through whom the light of Christ shone in the world (see Matthew 5:16 and 25:1-13, Revelation 1:10-12). It is for this reason that we use candles around the altar and other areas of the sanctuary in our churches to this day.
Early Christians probably adopted the practice of lighting a single lamp on the evening (vigil) of the Sabbath from a Jewish custom. This lamp, called the lucernarium, remained burning throughout the Lord’s Day in honor of the Lord’s resurrection. The greatest vigil of all, of course, was the vigil of Easter, from which all other Christian celebrations derived their meaning.
The oil lamp eventually became a large candle that took on greater prominence, especially in Western Christianity, in the Middle Ages. Particular attention was given during this time to the candle stand, especially in Rome, where it was used to catechize Christians into the deeper meaning of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
A magnificent example — an 18-foot-tall marble carving by Nicola d’Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto from 1170 — is now preserved in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. This stand is particularly important because it resembles the Victory Columns found in the Roman Forum of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Trajan. But this Christian Victory Column (Easter Candle) celebrates the victory of Jesus over the forces of chaos, sin, darkness and death.
A poem inscribed on this stand explains its beautiful meaning and that of the Paschal Candle: A tree carries fruit. I, too, am a tree, and I carry light. I carry the offering. I announce the feast day, the good news that Christ is resurrected. I am the witness of such a great gift.Unfortunately, we rarely place such catechetical attention on the Paschal Candle stand in modern times.
The connection between Jesus as the light of the world (John 8:12) and Christians as instruments of his light in a darkened world is expressed in iconography by representing saints with the sun behind their heads. One of the earliest examples of this imagery in Christian art is on the triumphal arch of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, which dates to the fifth century and depicts Jesus using the imagery of Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). Since the Greek word for sun is helios, this image of sanctity is commonly known as a halo.
Similarly, the Paschal Candle reminds us that as disciples we must become windows of Christ’s light for our darkened world. It is for that reason that the light of the candle, the flame of faith, the fire of the Holy Spirit, is symbolically passed from the Paschal Candle to all the faithful at the Easter Vigil, and to the new Christian at every baptism.
When you see the Paschal Candle this year, look at it not as a decoration in the church but as a reminder of who you are called to be as one who is baptized into Christ Jesus.