Illuminating the Paschal Candle

Rev. Michael Keith

So, you know that candle that is in the church that is on a stand? It is often found near the baptismal font or the altar—but not always. It's called the Paschal candle. Have you ever wondered why the Paschal candle is lit on some Sundays and on some occasions, but not on others? C'mon...you know you have!

Now, the truth is that when we begin talking about candles in the church and the meaning behind them it can be a messy business. Quite frankly, there seem to be as many meanings and traditions associated with candles as there are stars in the night sky. So, this is not so much about what is "right" and "wrong" when it comes to the understanding of candles in the church—the Paschal candle in particular. However, here is how the Paschal candle is often used in the Lutheran church.

We will begin with the Easter season. Many congregations bless a new Paschal candle each year at Easter. At the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday the Paschal candle is lit. It represents the resurrected Jesus among His people. That is why the Paschal candle is lit through the Season of Easter up to Ascension Day. On Ascension Day the candle is often removed from the church after the Gospel reading or simply extinguished.

The Paschal candle is also lit when there is a baptism. The use of the Paschal candle at a baptism visually reminds us of the connection between this sacrament and the resurrection of our Lord. Jesus is at work through the waters of Holy Baptism distributing the fruits of the cross and resurrection. We are reminded that through Jesus' Word and promises in Holy Baptism we are raised to new life.

In a similar way the Paschal candle is used at a funeral. When we see the Paschal candle lit and standing near the head of the casket we are reminded that this one is a baptized child of God. We are also reminded of St. Paul's words in Romans 6:3-5: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

There is a wonderful "bookending" that happens here as the candle is lit at baptism and at the funeral—a reminder that from beginning to end our Lord Jesus is with us—in our coming in and our going out from this time forth and even forevermore. Jesus is with you through all your life: the good, the bad and the ugly. He is with you through your death. He is with you to carry you to eternal life.

The symbolism behind the use of the Paschal candle can be helpful and encouraging to us. It draws us to remember our resurrected Lord Jesus and His defeat of sin, death, and the devil for us. It helps us to remember that we have received all that Jesus has to give in our baptism. We can draw comfort and strength when we see the Paschal candle lit at a funeral—knowing that this one has died to sin and has been raised to new life in Jesus.

Now, I know there will be people who will say: "That's not what we do at our congregation!" Or, "That's not how I understand the Paschal candle!" Or, "We light our Paschal candle every Sunday!" Okay. Keep on keepin' on. Stars in the night sky and all that. Don't freak out. This is just one of the more common explanations of the meaning behind the use of the Paschal candle. No matter how it is used in your congregation, it should remind you that Jesus has lived, died on the cross, and risen from the dead for you—that you have been washed in the waters of Holy Baptism and that Jesus has defeated sin, death and the devil for you, granting you new life—eternal life.

Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. He can be reached at keith@st-matthew.com

Created: October 13th, 2016