Fire, candles signify special nature of Easter Vigil - Catholic Courier
A priest places a large, white candle in a bonfire to light it as part of the Easter Vigil liturgy. Father James Schwartz lights the paschal candle ahead of a March 28, 2016, Easter Vigil Mass at Penfield’s St. Joseph Church. (Courier file photo)

Fire, candles signify special nature of Easter Vigil

BRIGHTON — One Mass each year literally gets off to a blazing start.

At Catholic parishes across the world, Easter Vigil liturgies will begin outdoors on Holy Saturday, April 8, around dusk. A new paschal candle will be lit from a bonfire at each church, then carried in procession through the darkened church to the sanctuary, according to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops article based on the Roman Missal rubrics for Easter Vigil celebrations. Smaller candles held by the faithful then will be lit, gradually brightening the worship space for the first time since Holy Thursday.

This highly visual opening ritual — known as the Service of Light — accentuates the primary meaning of the Easter Vigil Mass, according to Father Gary Tyman. He explained that the theme of light, transformed from darkness, symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection during the night leading into Easter Sunday.

“It’s about light, the light of our faith,” said Father Tyman, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Anne churches in Brighton and Rochester. He cited a reference to Christ in John 1:1-9, which states, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Lighting of paschal candle is an Easter Vigil Mass highlight

This year, the Easter Vigil liturgy for Father Tyman’s cluster will take place at Our Lady of Lourdes starting at 8:30 p.m., in keeping with the rubrics’ instruction that the Vigil Mass should not begin until nightfall. The ceremonial fire that begins the Mass will be built and lighted in a garden next to the church. The faithful will be invited to gather near the fire to join the procession or opt to wait inside the church.

Father Tyman noted that he seeks out people experienced with fire making — such as Boy Scouts and their fathers — to safely prepare and maintain the fire, then extinguish it after the procession has entered the church. If inclement weather interferes, he noted that the rubrics allow the Service of Light to begin indoors, with the paschal candle lit from a much smaller flame.

However, Father Tyman noted, the image of a candle being lighted from a crackling fire is much more spiritually stirring.

“If you flick a lighter, that doesn’t speak to us in the same way that fire does,” he said.

The paschal candle to be lighted that night is a large, white candle that burns during all services of the Easter season, which this year concludes on Pentecost Sunday, May 28. It also is lighted for such special occasions during the year as baptisms and funerals.

Paschal candles represent the light of the risen Christ and are adorned with visual symbols: a cross; the Greek letters alpha and omega indicating that Christ is the beginning and the end; five grains of incense embedded in the wax to represent the five wounds of Jesus; and the year in which the candle is being used.

Rochester priest calls Easter Vigil most important Mass of the year

Another unique aspect of the typically lengthy Easter Vigil Mass is the Liturgy of the Word, which incorporates three to as many as seven Old Testament readings rather than the single Old Testament passage typically read at other Masses.

In addition, the Liturgy of Baptism features the full initiation into the Catholic Church of candidates — people who were baptized in Catholic or recognized Protestant rites but never received first Eucharist and/or confirmation — and catechumens, those who are unbaptized.

Father Tyman said the Easter Vigil liturgy’s special characteristics are tied in with our belief in Christ’s triumph over his death on the cross, as well as our own transformation from darkness into the light of eternal salvation.

“Really, it’s the most important Mass of the whole year. Ultimately, our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection — our whole faith revolves around that. If he doesn’t rise from the dead, then what do we have?” Father Tyman noted.

Tags: Holy Week, Priests, Why do Catholics?
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