The use of the Paschal Candle has origins reaching at least to the third century, and may have a more ancient connection to the Jewish practice of lighting a candle at the end of the Sabbath. The blessing of the Paschal candle at the Easter Vigil and its use throughout the year is rich in symbolism and important to the sacramental life of the Church.
The candle must be made of pure wax representing the sinless flesh Christ took on from Mary. The flame represents his divinity and the wick his humanity.
Interestingly, the candle itself is not blessed, but rather the fire from which it is lit. At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, a “blazing fire” is lit outside the church. The fire represents the glory of Christ’s resurrection after the darkness of the church following the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday night. The priest first blesses the fire, praying that through the paschal celebrations, the people will be “inflamed with heavenly desires.”
The priest then prepares the candle, which will represent Christ and is the primary symbol of the Resurrection at the Easter Vigil. He cuts a cross into it with a stylus. He then cuts the Greek letters “Alpha” above the cross and “Omega” below it, indicating that Christ is the beginning and the end. The numerals of the current year are carved into the corners of the cross. The priest then inserts five grains of incense (usually encased in red wax) into the points of the cross and its center. These represent the five glorious wounds of Christ. The priest then lights the paschal candle from the blessed fire praying that the light of Christ will “dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”
Then the candle is processed into church by a deacon (if one is present) who raises it three times proclaiming, “The Light of Christ,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God”. During this procession, the priest and then the people light their own previously unlit candles from the flame of the Paschal Candle. The candle is finally placed in its holder and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) is sung or said.
The candle remains in the sanctuary or near the ambo for the rest of the Easter season and may be used throughout the year for baptisms, funerals and some other special occasion. Its very first duty though is later during the Easter Vigil, when it is used to bless the water with which the catechumens will be baptized.
Just before the catechumens are to be baptized, the water is blessed and the priest literally plunges the base of the candle into the font three times praying that “the power of the Holy Spirit . . . come down through your Son into the fullness of this font.” As the candle raised from the water, the congregation acclaims, “Springs of water, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all for ever.”