A woman wearing a mask as a precaution against swine flu lights the paschal candle near a statue of Jesus as the Lord of Health in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City April 29, 2009. CNS photo/Chico Sanchez
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Q: Why is the Easter candle not always lit? (Los Angeles, CA)
A: The Easter, or paschal, candle is a large wax candle that is blessed during the Easter vigil. Throughout the Easter season, it is kept in a prominent place in the church sanctuary and is lit during Mass and other liturgies from Easter until Pentecost.
The paschal candle represents the light of Christ, especially Christ risen from the dead. As we hear at the conclusion of the "Exsultet" -- the ancient and beautiful chant intoned by the deacon as the candle is processed into the worship space during the vigil:
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night. ...
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
The paschal candle also has a close association with baptism, not only because catechumens are traditionally baptized and received into the church at the Easter vigil, but more foundationally because baptism is our own personal sharing in Christ's death and resurrection. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: "We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (6:4). Thus, outside of the Easter season the paschal candle is kept near the baptismal font, and it is lit whenever baptisms are celebrated.
The Paschal candle is also lit during funeral Masses as a reminder of the deceased's baptism, and as an expression of our Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead.
Church norms on the paschal candle focus more on when to light the candle, as opposed to reasons why the candle is not lit the rest of the time. But making an educated inference, I suspect that by reserving it for those times and occasions that are specifically focused on Christ's resurrection, we preserve the candle's value as a symbol.
The church has many customs and symbols that are limited to sacred times and particular seasons. For example, we only receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, even though of course we are supposed to repent from our sins every day of the year. The paschal candle is meant to be an especially striking reminder of Christ's resurrection, which is why we only see it lighted at those times when we are meant to recall this mystery in a special way.
Q: Can I leave Mass after the blessing, or must I wait for the recessional hymn to be sung? (Syosset, New York)
A: The final blessing is the official conclusion of the Mass, so -- in that sense -- once the final blessing is said, Mass is over, and you may leave without technically missing any of the Mass.
However, as the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" says: "The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord's coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3:16)" (GIRM 39). And, as the popular expression (sometimes attributed to St. Augustine) goes, "he who sings prays twice." So, if you're not on a tight schedule, you might consider staying for the recessional hymn -- not out of a sense of obligation, but simply for your own spiritual joy and communal nourishment.
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.