It receives a solemn blessing so it can serve another sacred purpose.
Candles have always had a symbolic function in the Catholic Church, reminding the faithful that Jesus is the “the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Besides having a pride of place in the Mass, candles are also used in the celebration of Baptism and in the funeral rites of the Church.
In fact, the Church makes use of the same candle at both ceremonies: the Easter candle (also known as the Paschal candle).
Why is that?
The Easter candle receives a solemn blessing at the Easter Vigil and when the priest lights the candle from the sacred fire he says, “May the light of Christ rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” The deacon or priest then processes throughout the darkened church, lifting up the candle and loudly proclaiming, “The Light of Christ.” After the celebration of the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is kept near the pulpit for the duration of the Easter season.
However, it was traditionally extinguished on the feast of the Ascension, symbolizing Jesus’ ascension into Heaven (at present the Easter candle is kept out until Pentecost).
After the Ascension (or Pentecost) the candle is put away from sight and is not seen except at baptisms and funerals. What’s interesting is that at a baptism, the priest or deacon hearkens back to the Easter Vigil when the individual’s baptismal candle is lit from the Easter candle.
The celebrant takes the Easter candle and says:
Receive the light of Christ.
Someone from the family (such as the father or godfather) lights the child’s candle from the Easter candle.
The celebrant then says:
Parents and godparents,
this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.
This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ.
He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light.
May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart.
When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him
with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.
This small ceremony connects the two events and brings to mind the reality that it was the Easter candle that was used in the blessing of the baptismal font. Additionally, it reminds us of our own mission to be a “light of the world.”
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
At the end of one’s life the presence of the Paschal candle returns and is placed by the coffin or cremated remains. The US bishops explain, “In the celebration of funerals the Paschal candle should be placed near the coffin to indicate Christ’s undying presence, his victory over sin and death, and the promise of sharing in Christ’s victory by virtue of being part of the Body of Christ.”
The candle recalls the individual’s own baptism and is a reassurance to all those present of the victory won on Easter Sunday. It reminds us of our own future resurrection and connects the events of someone’s death with the saving actions of Jesus.
The Easter candle is a beautiful symbol of Christ’s presence and brings hope both at the beginning of life and at its end. Christ is always with us and is there to help us be a light that shines before all.