On Saturday, April 19, a new paschal candlestick and candle purchased by the members of St. Paul were dedicated to the glory of God in a special Easter Vigil service at 6:30 p.m. We asked God to use the paschal candle to “remind us continually that Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light that shines in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God.” We also asked him to use the paschal candlestick, which has the words of 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 engraved on the steps of its base, to “remind us continually that, through Jesus’ innocent death and his triumphant resurrection from the dead, God the Father has given us the irreversible victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
One of the Sunday School students of St. Paul served as the candlebearer.
The vigil service was an abbreviated form of the historic Vigil of Easter, which traditionally contains four components:
- The Service of Light
- The Service of Lessons (the actual vigil)
- The Service of Holy Baptism
- The Service of Holy Communion
Our dedication service consisted of an abbreviated form of #1, an abbreviated form of #2, and an abbreviated form of #3.
After the service, Pastor Biebert explained the history and significance of the paschal candle and Vigil of Easter, and also explained the symbolism on our particular candle and candlestick.
For more pictures, see our Facebook page and the pictures below.
The Paschal Candle and Easter Vigil
Paschal (PAS-kl) - having to do with the Passover
From the earliest days of the Christian Church, the celebration of the Passover has been connected with Jesus’ resurrection. The Passover meal, which Jesus ate for the last time on earth on Maundy Thursday, was the beginning of the 7-day Passover festival, which means Jesus also rose from the dead during the Passover celebration. This connection is strengthened all the more when we consider that, according to Jewish tradition, God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians and led them safely through the Red Sea three days after the Passover lambs were slaughtered (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 2,15,1).
Paul also connects this deliverance to baptism when he describes the Israelites as being “baptized” in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). This deliverance marked them as God’s people, and marked the beginning of their long and difficult journey to the Promised Land, yet accompanied by the presence of God. In the same way, in the New Testament God makes people his own people through baptism, and baptism thus marks the beginning of a Christian’s long (usually) and difficult journey to heaven through this veil of tears on earth, yet accompanied by the presence of God in his Word and Sacrament.
In Romans 6, Paul also says that through baptism God unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection. We died to sin and now live to God in righteousness. The body of sin, our old Adam, is rendered powerless.
There is therefore a strong connection between:
- God’s primary act of deliverance in the Old Testament (the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt),
- God’s primary act of deliverance in the New Testament and for all time (Christ’s death and resurrection, which freed us from slavery to sin and death), and
- water (delivered through the Red Sea in the Old Testament, delivered through the waters of baptism in the New Testament).
The Vigil of Easter dates back to the 100s AD. On Easter Eve, those adults who were being taken through instruction in Christian doctrine were baptized, precisely because of the above connection. It was during the night that the Lord delivered the Israelites through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21). Recall also that, for the Jews, the new day began at 6 p.m., which means that the day on which Jesus rose actually began on Saturday at 6 p.m. Recall also that we are never told of the exact moment Jesus returned to life or left the tomb. (Some say that Jesus rose when the earthquake described in Matthew 28:2 took place, but Matthew himself tells us that the earthquake happened because an angel of the Lord came down from heaven.) In fact, the tomb was not opened on Easter morning so that Jesus could get out, but so that people could get in and see that Christ had already risen and left the tomb. Thus, Christ may very well have risen from the dead and left the tomb on Easter Eve sometime after 6 p.m.
In the early days of the Christian Church, candles and lamps were basically the only source for light at night. Candles were also used to symbolize Christ, who is compared to light very often in Scripture (e.g. John 3:19; 8:12; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Thus it was not long before baptism came to be called “illumination,” because in baptism the light of Christ shines on us (cf. Ephesians 5:14; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Titus 3:4-7). It was also an ancient Jewish custom to light a candle on Saturday evening after the conclusion of the Sabbath. Combine all these facts, and it will not surprise us that candles came to be connected with the Vigil of Easter in short time. We know for sure that the practice of lighting one main paschal candle was already a well-established part of the Vigil of Easter by the 700s, when the Venerable Bede describes the practice in some detail, and it was probably in place long before that.
The rite of the Vigil of Easter has never been completely uniform everywhere. But a basic outline of the service up to the Middle Ages went like this: On Saturday evening, a “new fire” was kindled somewhere outside the church using a piece of flint. Flint was use to represent Christ, the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:2), the stone the builders had rejected which had become the chosen and precious cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; 1 Peter 2:6). The new fire symbolized Christ’s return to life in the tomb. The minister, congregation, and candlebearer gathered next to the fire. After some words from the minister and prayer, the paschal candle was lit from the newly kindled fire. Those gathered then lit small individual candles from the paschal candle. They then processed into the dark church. At various points, the candlebearer would pause and sing, “The light of Christ,” and the congregation would respond, “Thanks be to God.”
Once the candlebearer placed the paschal candle in its stand, the minister or a deacon chanted the Exsultet. This was the Service of Light, which was basically conducted in candlelight alone. This was followed by the Service of Lessons (the actual vigil, which invariably included the reading of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea), the Service of Holy Baptism (when all the candidates for membership were baptized), and the Service of Holy Communion. During the Service of Lessons and the Service of Holy Baptism, there was minimal lighting. For the service of Holy Communion, the altar candles and other candles in the church were lit from the paschal candle. The church was filled with light, the bells were rung, the minister called out, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and the congregation responded, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” In many cases, the minister’s cry was timed to occur as close to midnight as possible.
As the number of adult baptisms diminished and the number of infant baptisms increased in Europe (a natural result of the spread of the gospel), the purpose and understanding of the Vigil faded, since it was reserved for adult baptisms, and since Christians rightly did not want to put off the baptism of their newly born children until the Easter Vigil. Eventually, virtually all baptisms took place at times other than the Vigil. By the time of the Lutheran Reformation, the Vigil was hardly used in the Western Church. However, the practice of lighting the paschal candle in churches during the Easter season continued.
The candle was used to symbolize Christ in two ways:
- The light represented Christ, the Light of the world, without whom all people would be lost in darkness and death.
- The long, thick, cylindrical shape of the candle called to mind Christ’s presence with his people in the pillar of cloud, which brought light to the Israelites and darkness to the Egyptians as they crossed the Red Sea, and which accompanied them through the wilderness.
In fact, this second aspect of the symbolism seems to have been more popular in England, where the paschal candles were fashioned in massive proportions in the Middle Ages. The cathedral of Salisbury in southern England had a paschal candle that was 36 feet tall in 1517, and in 1558 the paschal candle of Westminster Abbey contained somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 lbs. of wax.
The symbolism on the paschal candle itself is always threefold:
- The year is inscribed on it, to indicate that Christ rules time and eternity, and that he already knows what will happen this year and has this year’s events firmly in his control.
- The Alpha and Omega reminds us that Christ is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He was before anything else was, and he reigns into eternity. He will return to take us to dwell with him in heavenly light. All things exist by him, through him, and for him. Without him, nothing else really matters.
- The five wax nails, each embedded with a grain of incense, remind us of the precious wounds of Christ, which he still bears in his body in heaven at the present (nail marks in two hands, nail marks in two feet, and a scar from the spear thrust into his side). Through these wounds, the lifeblood of Christ was shed for the sins of the world on the cross.
The paschal candle of St. Paul is 3 feet tall and also includes shepherd imagery. The cross is worked into a shepherd’s crook, which reminds us that Christ does not rule the earth or the Christian Church ruthlessly, but kindly and tenderly, as a shepherd does his sheep. It is also a reminder that the local pastor (pastor is a Latin word that means shepherd) is not the real shepherd of this flock, but that even he is subservient to the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, only to take it up again (John 10:11,17). The four sheep beneath the cross, representing the members of the Holy Christian Church (and reminiscent of the four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), look up at the cross in wonder. The focus of the life of every Christian is the gospel of Jesus, especially his suffering and death on the cross, the token of every Christian’s redemption.
In the four blocks surrounding the cross are the letters “IC” (upper left, the first and last letters of “Jesus” in Greek), “XC” (upper right, the first and last letters of “Christ” in Greek), “NI” (lower left, the first two letters of the Greek verb νικᾷ [nika]), and “KA” (lower right, the last two letters of the Greek verb νικᾷ [nika]). Spelled out in its entirety, it translates: “Jesus Christ conquers” or “Jesus Christ is victorious.” It reminds us first and foremost of Jesus’ victory over our most formidable enemy, death. But it then also reminds us that Jesus has conquered all our enemies and will thus rescue us from every evil attack and bring us safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
The candlestick of St. Paul is called the “Bethel Paschal Candlestick.” (“Bethel” is the name of the place where Jacob had the dream of the staircase reaching to heaven; the word means “house of God.”) It is made of polished brass (just like our altar candlesticks) and has an ascending three-tiered base (just like our altar candlesticks). It also has a pole, a shallow bobeche (boh-BESH) for catching the wax, and a 3-inch-tall candle socket with a 2-inch diameter. The total height from base to socket is 40-inches. (40 is a very significant number in the Bible. We might especially call to mind the 40 days and 40 nights that the floodwaters fell on the earth, since the flood is used as an illustration for baptism in the New Testament. Just as the floodwaters lifted up Noah and his family from the sinful world and kept them safe as the rain fell, so the waters of baptism deliver us from the sinful world and our own sinful flesh by uniting us with Christ’s death and resurrection.)
There is an engraving on each step of the base, taken from the Latin Vulgate translation of 1 Corinthians 15:54b-55:
- ABSORTA EST MORS IN VICTORIA (“Death has been swallowed up in victory!” - top step)
- UBI EST MORS VICTORIA TUA (“Where, O death, is your victory?” - middle step)
- UBI EST MORS STIMULUS TUUS (“Where, O death, is your sting?” - bottom step)
Because the candle symbolizes the resurrected Christ, victorious over sin and death, it is lit for every service throughout the Easter season up through Pentecost. It is then stationed behind the baptismal font, and lit on baptism Sundays and at funerals, where it is stationed at the head of the casket.
- “Paschal Candle” (https://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9017) in the Catholic Encyclopedia online; accessed 21 April 2014
- “Holy Fire” and “Paschal Taper” in the Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, ed. Rev. John M’Clintock and James Strong (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872, 1877), 4:305.2; 7:723.2
- Rev. Johnold Strey, “Easter Vigil Preview” (http://pastorstrey.wordpress.com/2009/04/04/easter-vigil-preview/); accessed 21 April 2014
- Christian Worship: Occasional Services (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2004)
- William Whiston, tr., Josephus: The Complete Works (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998)