The paschal candle is a large column of wax fixed on a special candlestick, lighted during Easter Vigil, the church service on Holy Saturday. Easter celebrations and paschal candles may vary in different Christian congregations, but the meaning and significance are universal. After a period of darkness beginning on Good Friday, Christians gather around and share in the lighting of the paschal candle on Easter Vigil to signal Christ's banishment of death and darkness.
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The paschal candle is an ancient representation of Jesus. During the ceremony, five grains of incense are inserted in the form of a cross to represent Christ's wounds. The Greek letters alpha (above the cross) and omega (below), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, indicate that Christ is the beginning and end of all, and is present in his church now and for all eternity. The current year is also inscribed on the four sides of the cross to indicate that God is present here and now among the congregation gathered around the candle.
The paschal candle, also known as Easter candle or Christ candle, comes from the Hebrew word "pasach" meaning Passover. Passover is the most popular Jewish celebration, referring to the time God "passed over" the houses of the Jews as he slew the firstborns of Egypt.
Evidence suggests that the solemn rite of the paschal candle blessing began no later than the second half of the fourth century. The rite is rooted in the very beginning of Christianity and is believed to be inspired by the Jewish custom of lighting a lamp at the conclusion of the Sabbath.
The lighting of the paschal candle transpires on the night of Holy Saturday called the Easter Vigil. The rite is performed by the priest, while reciting a long Eucharistic prayer. First, the candle is ornamented with five grains of incense. Then, it is lighted with the newly blessed fire. The candle remains in the sanctuary during the 50 days of Easter and is lit for all liturgical services.
After Pentecost, the paschal candle is placed near the baptismal font. It is lit during baptisms as a reminder that in baptism, Christians share in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The paschal candle is also lighted at Christian funerals to remind us that when we die in Christ, we are also raised up with Him.
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