Light a candle, and it illuminates the world. So the tradition says. Monsignor Robert Siler, chancellor and chief of staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima, calls it “shining out of darkness.”The Rev. Joseph Copeland of Holy Cross Orthodox Church says, “It’s the representation of the grace of God and light of the world.”
To the Rev. Mark Griesse of Peace Lutheran Church in Selah, “it symbolizes the presence of Christ.”They’re describing the Paschal candle, an Easter ritual celebrated in a number of denominations, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Methodist and United Church of Christ.
In many churches, the tall, white candle is lit on Easter or the night before and continues to burn during each church service thereafter for 40 or 50 days. Each Paschal ceremony is a little different, and not all candles will be lit on the same day — or even in the same month.
Paschal comes from a Hebrew word, meaning passover. It refers to the biblical story of Passover, when Israelites were “passed over” from plagues and led out of slavery in ancient Egypt.
Siler explains that early Christians adopted some symbols of Passover, extending the practice to cover the Easter season. The Christian use of Paschal candles dates to the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. That celebration was marked by light, Siler notes. To Christians, the Paschal candle then came to represent Christ and his light.
A Paschal candle can differ in size and decoration but almost always is marked with a cross. Often written on the candle are the first and last Greek letters, alpha and omega, to symbolize that God is the beginning and end of everything, Griesse says. Or, the letters Chi and Rho can also appear, standing for the first two letters in Christ’s name in Greek. The Paschal candle used in Roman Catholic churches and at Holy Cross are made of wax; Peace Lutheran lights a fluid-filled candle.
The sisters at St. John the Forerunner Monastery in Goldendale make a Paschal candle every year for Holy Cross. “It can be decorated with colored beads, have flower designs and it has the cross itself,” Copeland describes. “It’s a beautiful work of art.”
Size doesn’t matter. Holy Cross will burn a 30-inch-tall candle this year; Siler says most Paschal candles in Catholic churches are about 3 feet high. At Peace Lutheran, the 18-inch Paschal candle is placed on a stand more than 4 feet tall, so the candle becomes a large focus at the front of church, Griesse says.
Siler says that every year the Paschal candle contains the four numbers of the current year, to represent the presence of God in the present as well as past and future. Five grains of incense, signifying the five wounds on Christ’s body from the Crucifixion, are embedded in the candle used in Catholic churches.
During his first year as pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Ellensburg in 2002, Siler wasn’t sure how tall a candle he’d need to last through all the Masses for 50 days, as well as baptisms and funerals the rest of the year.
“I panicked and bought a large one,” he recalls. So it lasted. And lasted. Later this evening, Siler and other Catholics will gather for Easter vigils, which most churches in the diocese hold on Easter eve. St. Paul Cathedral’s vigil begins at 8:30 p.m. with the Paschal candle being lit from a fire in an outdoor pit. After Bishop Joseph Tyson prays — “Dispel darkness” — everyone lights a small candle before filing into the dark church. The procession stops three times for a chant and response, then sings. Mass follows.
“It’s a really moving part of the Easter celebration,” Siler says. “Being involved in something that developed in the early church and is repeated every year is humbling and spiritually uplifting.”The Paschal candle will be lighted last at Mass on Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter. That celebrates when the Holy Spirit was said to appear before the Apostles. After that, the Paschal candle will only be lit in Catholic churches for baptisms and funerals until next year.
At Peace Lutheran, the Paschal candle has been burning for three months; it was lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize “when Christ came to be among us,” Griesse says. It burns each Sunday until Ascension Day, which is 40 days after Easter (this year on May 9). “Ascension Day is when Christ ascended to heaven; after that, we don’t light the candle anymore, except for baptisms,” he says.
On Sunday, which is Easter, the candle will be lit for both the 7 a.m. sunrise service and the 9:30 a.m. service. Griesse, who has ministered at Peace Lutheran since 2009, says the Paschal candle is steeped in tradition: “As all things, it has symbolism and helps in the worship service by drawing attention to who we worship and that he’s among us.”
At Holy Cross, the Paschal candle won’t be lit until midnight on May 5, which is Pascha, or Easter in the Orthodox faith. The congregation will gather at 11:30 p.m. May 4 to wait for the lighting of the candle. The entire church is dark until that time.
People then come one-by-one to light their own candle from the Paschal candle. At Holy Cross, it will burn for 40 days following Orthodox Easter. Copeland, who has been leading worship at the church since it formed in 1987, says the Paschal candle is directly tied to what Orthodox followers attribute as a miracle. They describe a light that appears spontaneously every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the day preceding Orthodox Easter.
“The holy site was lit by God miraculously, and every year thousands come there,” Copeland says. “It’s called Holy Light and is a wonderful tradition that goes back a millennia. Every Paschal candle is connected to that. ”Although the use of Paschal candles varies from church to church and tradition to tradition, one tenet always underlies their lighting every year. “It’s a reminder of why we’re here,” Griesse says.