The paschal candle holds a place of great antiquity in the Roman rite, as well as others. As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, beginning at the Easter Vigil, it is lit at all Masses through the Feast of the Ascension as a symbol of the Risen Christ. In the old rite, it is extinguished after the Gospel on the Feast of the Ascension as a sign of our Pasch's departure to prepare a place for His faithful.
Symbolism of the Paschal Candle: Christ, the Divine Gardener
While the focal point of a Paschal Candle is the Alpha, Cross, and Omega, the rest of this candle is adorned with theologically symbolic images and ornaments which further elaborate the meaning of our Lord’s Resurrection.
When we process into the dark church at the Easter Vigil, our way is illuminated by one point of light: the flame of holy fire atop the Paschal candle, and we sing “Lumen Christi, Deo Gratias.” This small flame contains within it a portrait of the Heavenly Jerusalem for which we yearn; it is our true home for which we strive. St. John the Beloved Disciple writes about the Heavenly Jerusalem and its celestial light, which is God Himself, in the Apocalypse: “And the city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine upon it. For the glory of God lights it up, and the Lamb is the lamp thereof.” And so, above the Alpha and Omega is pictured the Lamb, the lamp of the Heavenly Jerusalem, Christ, “standing as though slain,” atop the book with seven seals.
The Lamb is framed with vines which wind around blossoming forth flowers and berries. This ornamentation is inspired first of all by the heart of Our Lady, who stood faithfully by the Cross even though almost everyone else fled. She was the “Lily among brambles.”
The ornamentation of vines and flowers also symbolizes the story of our salvation, which began in a garden: “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and put there the man he had formed.” Man was expelled from this garden by sin…however, our means of salvation was won by our Lord Jesus Christ in a garden; a detail which Christ’s beloved disciple notes in his gospel: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” The very first person who saw the resurrected Christ, St. Mary Magdalene, received this revelation in a garden: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why art thou weeping? Whom dost thou seek?’ She, thinking that he was the gardener, said to him, ‘Sir, if thou hast removed Him, tell me where thou hast laid him and I will take him away.’” In the beautiful course of events which followed, St. Mary Magdalene’s words to the mourning disciples were these: “I HAVE SEEN THE LORD.” Thus our Lord’s first revelation of his glorious body took place in a garden, a place of beauty. Flowers should remind us of the entire story of our salvation, from beginning to end.
The vines and flowers symbolize the hidden Christ “peering through the lattice,” as it says in the Canticle of Canticles, present among us on earth. Christ says to His Church on Easter morning: “Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away, for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.” The passing of winter yields to the visual appeal of flowers, and the aural appeal of birds singing. The passing of our day-to-day sorrows yields to the beauty of visual art in our churches, and of beautiful sacred music during the Liturgy. The passing of our earthly life yields to the celestial and surpassing beauty of, please God, eternal life in heaven.
The ornamentation on the Paschal candle symbolizes Christ as the source of all Life. Master iconographer, Nikita Andrejev, writes in The Prosopon Journal Issue No. 10, “In the Christian cosmology, nature is never contemplated in isolation from the mysterious seeds of the divine Presence which are considered as the foundational principles and upholding forces in all created things.” The new life surging forth in a tiny spring blossom preaches the truth that St. John preached in his gospel: “and in Him was LIFE.” And thus the role of ornament in sacred art (and in sacred music, such as melismas in Gregorian chant) allows us to see the depth and meaning of life, which cannot be found outside Christ. Andrejev says that we “perceive through and beyond the visible phenomena to that which is the source of all meaning, the wellspring which never runs dry, and does not allow banality.” Ornamentation is a stylized portrait of vegetation, the “lowest common denominator” of earthly existence, and yet the expression of the presence of God appears even in “the most remote reaches of the universe and into the smallest, molecular spaces of matter as it makes its way into the very tips of newly grown tree branches … ornament is the transposition and functioning of divine Life on even the most insignificant level of the cosmos.” It gets better. Andrejev concludes that “ornament is also the image of a certain blooming forth of divine Ideas within simple natural shapes of creation, as if from the dust of a divine star that has passed overhead. With its intertwining forms, ornament is also a mirror of the rich complexity, unexpected wonderfulness and inimitability of the ‘Ways of the Lord.’”
Because the story of our salvation began in a garden, was fought for and won in a garden, it is supremely important that the very place where we encounter the Person of our salvation is as beautiful as a garden. The garden is a portrait of the inner heart of Our Lady. The garden is the concrete, specific place here on earth where our Lord chose for the most significant events in the story of salvation: the origin and fall of man, the battle for salvation, the victory of our salvation, and the first revelation of the glorious, risen, Christ. The sacred place where we attend Mass should be like a garden full of beautiful objects and beautiful sounds. The melisma heard in our Gregorian chant is echoed in the vines seen in this little Paschal candle, is echoed in every stitch of the sacred vestments, and in each brush stroke on the walls surrounding the High Altar. All of this diligent and meticulously sung, sewn, and painted work points directly to and comes from our Lord, and creates a small portrait of the hope of heaven.