The origin of the custom of making and blessing the Paschal Candle has not been ascertained with certainty either as to time or place. It has been attributed by some writers to Pope St. Zosimus, who ascended the throne of Peter in the year 417; but it seems more probable that the rite had been introduced before his time, at least in the greater basilicas. It is not mentioned of this Pope that he instituted the ceremony, but only that he permitted the Paschal Candle to be blessed in the parish churches. What still more pleads, says Cardinal Wiseman, for the antiquity of this rite is the existence of it in distinct churches, and some of these in the East; for St. Gregory Nazianzen, who was a contemporary of St. Zosimus, mentions it, as do other Fathers also. I think it may then be said to have been in general use early in the fifth century.
Some of the Paschal Candles were very large, weighing thirty, fifty, and even a hundred pounds. A favorite weight in many churches was thirty-three pounds, in honor of the thirty-three years of the life of our divine Lord upon earth, whose pure body the virginal whiteness of the wax aptly typifies. In early times the offices of the entire year, which began with Easter, were inscribed on the Paschal Candle. Later, as their number increased, they were written on a parchment, and attached to it, sometimes by means of one of the grains of incense, to be noticed later on. This custom continued in certain dioceses of France as late as the middle of the last century. But with the multiplication of feasts the practice became impossible, and with the invention of printing, unnecessary. The candle was also frequently decorated with flowers, or, as is still done, with designs in wax or other material; and it had openings for the five grains of incense.
Before the beginning of the fifth century Mass was not celebrated during the day on Holy Saturday; the offices did not begin before the hour of none, or three o’clock in the afternoon; and the people kept vigil in the churches till midnight, when Mass was celebrated. This custom continued till the latter part of the Middle Ages; and it accounts for the frequent reference to night both in the blessing of the Paschal Candle and in the Preface and Canon of the Mass of Holy Saturday. It served also to impart a more striking significance to the candle, which shed its light in the natural darkness, and symbolized more perfectly than at present the risen Saviour as the light of the world. It served better to explain, too, the joyous character of the Mass of Holy Saturday, which was then, in point of time as well as in tenor, a more perfect anticipation of the glories of Easter than now; since the Mass came nearer to the joys of Easter morn than to the dolorous scenes of Good. Friday afternoon.
The custom of celebrating Mass on Holy Saturday night is found to have existed as early as the time of Tertullian, that is, at the close of the second century; and it is, besides, spoken of by that writer as something common and well known, and not as a ceremony but lately introduced. St. Jerome attributes the keeping of the vigil of Easter to apostolic tradition. But about the middle of the twelfth century, as we are informed by Hugh of St. Victor, a custom began to be introduced of anticipating the offices, although it did not become general for some three centuries at least, and vestiges of the old custom were found still later.
No little diversity of opinion exists with regard to the authorship of the Exultet, chanted for the blessing of the Paschal Candle. Says Father O’Brien, in his “History of the Mass”: “It is almost universally admitted that the composition of this is the work of St. Augustine, but that the chant itself is Ambrosian.” Cardinal Wiseman is more probably correct when he states that “the beautiful prayer in which the consecration or blessing of the Paschal Candle takes place has been at tributed to several ancient Fathers: by Martene, with some degree of probability, to the great St. Augustine, who very likely only expressed better what the prayers before his time declared.” And he continues: “It very beautifully joins the twofold object of the institution. For while it prays that this candle may continue burning through the night to dispel the darkness, it speaks of it as a symbol of the fiery pillar which led the Israelites from Egypt, and of Christ, the ever true and never failing light.” The chant is said to be the only specimen of the pure Ambrosian found at present in the liturgy of the Church.
I shall not pause to speak of the ceremony of the blessing of the new fire, the five grains of incense, or the lighting of the candle, and from it the lamps. We are familiar with these, and they are sufficiently explained in the missal and the ceremonial. But it is worthy of remark that it is the deacon and not the priest—or, in smaller churches, the celebrant as deacon and not as priest—who blesses the Paschal Candle, to signify that not to the apostles but to others was entrusted the privilege of preparing the dead body of Our Saviour—which the candle not as yet lighted typifies—for the holy sepulchre. The five grains of incense, which are blessed to be inserted in the candle, represent by their number and arrangement the five wounds of our blessed Lord, which were inflicted before His death, but the cicatrices of which were retained by Him after His resurrection; and the material of these grains represents the spices with which His sacred body was prepared for the holy sepulchre. Hence they are put into the candle before it is lighted, and remain there afterward.
The manner in which the Church attaches mystic significations to many of her sacred rites and ceremonies naturally leads us to inquire still further into the symbolical meaning of the Paschal Candle; and we have the more reason to expect a mystic signification both from the time and the circumstances attending the blessing of the candle itself, and from the days on which it burns. In the first place, it represents our divine Redeemer Himself, dead, and then risen to a new life, to die no more, as the Apostle declares; for the candle is not at first lighted, but only after the performing of a part of the blessing. The grains of incense, too, are inserted in it before it is lighted, to represent the wounds which caused the death of the Saviour of the world. The virginal wax of the candle typifies His sacred body, while the flame and light show Him to be the Word of the Father, enlightening everyone that cometh into the world. Hence it burns on Sundays from Easter to the Ascension, Sunday being the day on which especially the Word is preached for the enlightenment of the people; but it is extinguished when Our Saviour leaves the earth and entrusts the diffusion of His light to the apostles. It also typifies, as we have seen, the cloud and the pillar by which the chosen people were guided in their wanderings, during forty years in the desert, on their way to the Promised Land.
During the blessing of the baptismal font the Paschal Candle, as representing Our Saviour, is thrice lowered into it, the celebrant praying meanwhile that the virtue of the Holy Ghost may descend into the sacred font and sanctify it, as He descended upon Our Lord when He was baptized in the Jordan, thereby imparting to water the power of cleansing from sin those to whom it is applied according to the institution of Christ.
Considerable diversity of opinion exists with regard to the times during which the Paschal Candle should be lighted. The following from De Herdt is perhaps as fair a summary of these opinions as can be had, and will serve all practical purposes. According to a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, of May 19, 1607, it is to be lighted at the solemn Mass and Vespers of Easter Sunday and on the two following days; on Easter Saturday, and on all the Sundays to the Ascension, on which day it burns only to the end of the gospel, when it is finally extinguished. It is not to be lighted on other days or feasts celebrated within the Easter time, unless in churches where such a custom exists, which custom may be continued. According to the Memoriale Rituum of Benedict XIII., it is to be lighted also on the feasts of Our Lord, and on the feasts of precept of the saints occurring during the same season. Gavantus holds it to be a pious custom to light it during the entire octave of Easter. In the opinion of Merati it would be proper to have it burn on the feasts of the apostles, of the patron, titular, and of the dedication of the church occurring during Easter time; also on other feasts celebrated with solemnity; during the Masses, though not solemn, on Sundays; and during the celebration of solemn votives, provided the color of the vestments is not violet. It is not to be lighted on the Rogation Days, according to the same authority. It is to be lighted for the blessing of the baptismal font on the eve of Pentecost. The custom most generally followed in this country, though by no means universal, is to have the Paschal Candle burn on Sundays during Easter time at all the Masses and at Vespers.
Another important question regarding the Paschal Candle is deserving of a few remarks. It is seldom or never entirely consumed; can it be blessed a second time? This is sometimes done after it has been scraped and cleansed from drippings so as to appear in some sort new. Is this in harmony with the rubrics and with their interpretation by the best authorities? De Herdt, who has summarized the authorities on this point, shall again answer. He says: “The candle must be new, or not blessed; or, if not new, must be entirely remoulded—refectus; and if not remoulded, other wax must be added, and this in greater quantity than the old wax, otherwise the axiom will hold: Major pars trahit ad se minorem.” It may be remarked, parenthetically, that sometimes the lower part of the Paschal Candle is a separate and heavily ornamented piece of wax, which serves as a sort of pedestal or candlestick. This may be used each year, provided it has not been blessed with the Paschal Candle proper during the ceremony of Holy Saturday. Discussing the opinions of those who hold that the same candle may be blessed more than once, De Herdt draws a distinction that is worthy of attention. He says the repetition of a blessing is permitted when the blessing is what is called invocative, by which blessing the divine protection merely is besought, as in the case of food, etc. But with regard to that form of blessing which is known as constitutive, by which the things blessed become holy in such a manner that they cannot afterward be devoted to profane uses, such as the blessing of a church, of sacerdotal vestments, and beyond doubt, of the Paschal Candle, so long as the articles retain their proper form—quamdiu ipsæ res integræ existunt—it cannot be repeated.
There is a relation between the Paschal Candle and the Agnus Dei which is deserving of notice. As has been said, it is seldom that the Paschal Candle is entirely consumed before the feast of the Ascension . It was not the custom in early times to remould the remnant of the candle left when it was finally extinguished, but the faithful were accustomed to procure small portions of it, and keep them in their homes as a sacred amulet to protect them against evils, especially against tempests. All authors agree that it was from this pious custom that the Agnus Dei, which is now almost universally worn by devout Christians, derives its origin.1
1 See the following essay on the Agnus Dei.