Saturday, April 10, 2010

Column: Pillars of Fire

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 8 April 2010.

Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God. Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night! May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning… — From the Exsultet

Last week, as Lent drew to its close, I was lingering in the back of the church by our baptismal font where for most of the year the Paschal candle stands. Even then, after shedding a year’s worth of light on Eucharistic liturgies and baptisms, the candle loomed large in both reality and my imagination.

I touched the wax nails and remembered the blustery night we pushed these grains of incense into the wax, when we struggled to keep this candle lit. I saw the warm circle of light it cast as we brought it into the darkened church, and stood around it to listen to the Word that spoke of salvation. I heard echoes of the great Easter Proclamation, “May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning…” The next night of vigil is nearly upon us and here, the flame is still burning.

The candle leads me back to the Easter mysteries, standing in mute witness to the night we are reminded in the Exsultet that “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence…” Long ago the bones of the liturgical calendar, the dates of the great feasts, were inscribed on the Paschal candle, guiding the community through the year, much as the Israelites followed the great pillar of fire through the desert.

In the days before the flick of a switch could light a Church brighter than it would be at midday, I wonder what it must have been like to see the great Easter candles — 30 feet high and weighing hundreds of pounds — aflame in the depths of the night? The dark of night is not so dark these days, and my parish’s candle, imposing as it is on its ornate stand, sheds not even enough light to read by. It must have been a powerful sign of Christ’s triumph over evil.

Some ancient Christian communities would break the candle up after the vigil, and the faithful would take pieces home, imbued with the memories of that burgeoning triumphant flame. The deacon’s Laus Cerei, the precursor to the Exsultet we now sing, extolled the spiritual and temporal benefits these bits would bring to the bearer — protection from tempest and trial.

Later traditions would see the old candle melted down just before the Triduum began, and recast the wax mixed with chrism into medallions depicting the Lamb of God — a way of keeping the bearer aware of the mysteries of suffering and salvation celebrated in the light of that candle.

Much as I might treasure a bit of that Easter light tucked away in pocket or drawer, I value yet more that candle’s lingering light in the Church throughout the year. St. Jerome, though neither a fan of the Easter candle nor the Laus Cerie that heralded its lighting, nevertheless suggests we listen to the candle’s song and cherish the Light — and get about the work of carrying it into the world. May next Easter find the flames now lit still burning in our churches and in our hearts.

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people! — From the Exsultet

Photo from Br. Lawrence OP.


  1. I knew almost none of this. Thank you so much, Michelle.

  2. "Listen to the candle's song and cherish the Light..."

    How beautiful!

    Thank you.

  3. thanks for the tradition... our Episcopal one is no where near the 30 feet of the past