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Shining Christ’s Light: The Paschal Candle

May the light of Christ, rising in glory,
dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”

In this reflection, we explore the significance of the Paschal Candle, how it is used on Holy Saturday, and how it is incorporated in the liturgy throughout the year.

Lighting the Paschal Candle
Lighting the Paschal Candle

Why do we use candles in the liturgy?

From the early beginnings of the Church, candles have played an important part in our liturgical celebrations. Practically, candles were often used in churches to provide light in dim spaces or to provide ornamentation to altars. It was not until the 17th century that the use of candles became obligatory in the Mass.

Symbolically, candles represent Christ, who is the light of the world (John 12:35). We see candles used during the Easter Season, and special liturgical celebrations such as Candlemas. A sanctuary lamp always burns near the Tabernacle, representing the presence of Our Lord in the reposed Eucharist.

What does the Paschal Candle represent? In what way is the Candle an important part of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil?

“Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.” With these opening words of the Exsultet, which is sung at the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass, we listen to the Deacon proclaim Christ’s resurrection. It is through the light of the Paschal Candle that we are drawn deeper into the meaning and mystery of the Church’s greatest Feast: Easter.

Detail of symbols on Paschal Candle

What are the symbols on the Candle? What do these elements represent?

During the opening ceremony of the Easter Vigil, which takes place in front of a large fire, the candle is adorned with special symbols. Five grains of incense are inserted in the form of a cross, representing the five wounds of Christ. The other symbols placed on the candle are an Alpha and Omega, representing Christ as the beginning and the end (Revelation 21:6) and the numbers of the current year.

What happens to the Paschal Candle after Easter?

From the Easter Vigil until Pentecost Sunday, the Paschal Candle is prominently displayed near the pulpit of the church and is lit for all liturgies. Once the season of Easter is over, the Paschal Candle returns to the baptismal font.

How is the Paschal Candle tied to baptism?

The Paschal Candle is kept near the baptismal font because it is used during the Liturgy of Baptism. When we are baptized and made new creatures in Christ, we receive Christ’s light from the Paschal Candle as the priests pray “Receive the light of Christ” (Rite of Baptism for Children, #100). Just as the Paschal Candle is with believers through the beginning stages of their Christian journey, it is also present at the end, placed near the casket during funeral rites.

Light a Candle at the Basilica

Light a Candle at the BasilicaWe invite you to light a candle today at the National Shrine. Vigil candles burn in the chapels throughout the upper church and lower crypt level of the National Shrine. Each candle represents the faith of the supplicants and their fervent prayers entrusted to the loving intercession of the Blessed Mother.


A Guide to Basilica Art: The Exterior of the Basilica
He is Risen: The Triumph of Easter