Many United Methodist churches use candles in worship. Some churches today are adopting an ancient usage of a very large candle that symbolizes both the pillar of fire that led Israel by night and the risen Lord who stands among us at Easter. This large candle sits in a tall (usually 48 inches) stand, and it bears a light high in the vision and hearts of the people as they cry, "Alleluia! Christ is risen!"
This candle is called the paschal candle. "Pasch" comes from the Hebrew word "pesah," meaning deliverance or Passover -- thus connecting the Resurrection to the Exodus.
Why would a church create or purchase and use the paschal candle? Because that church wants to enter into the great mystery of the Resurrection in dramatic and sustained ways! Most churches that want to use the paschal candle begin to introduce the Easter Vigil Service (see The United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 369-376).
Below are some ideas for securing and using the paschal candle.
- Start a tradition. Take advantage of having a new paschal candle stand, and celebrate the Easter Vigil! It is the primordial, grand service of services. Even if only a small group of the faithful come, the service gives a new dimension to the Easter celebration; and it gets the candle lighted in context. Short of that, you might try adapting the "Service of Light" from the Book of Worship (pages 370-371). Light the paschal candle outside and process into the church. The candle then remains lighted for all services during the Great Fifty Days — Easter through Pentecost.
- There is no hard and fast rule about whether the candle should be lighted before the service begins or in the service on the Sundays after Easter Day. You may want to light the candle before the service so that it witnesses to the presence of the risen Lord as people arrive. (At my local church, the candle is carried in on Easter and is left stationary the remainder of the Great Fifty Days.) See The New Handbook of the Christian Year for additional information about the paschal candle. (See page 214 for some helpful suggestions about imagery that may help people invest the candle with meaning.)
- Light the candle for services where there will be baptisms. It is appropriate to light the candle at services where there will be other initiation rites — such as confirmations or renewals of baptism. It is a good idea to hold those kinds of services during the Great Fifty Days — inclusive of Pentecost or other high Christological days as suggested by The United Methodist Book of Worship (page 84, the second paragraph). The candle should also be lighted at funerals. It should be placed near the casket as a visual reminder of the linkage of Christ and the baptized and as a witness to the presence of the One who is the Resurrection and the life.
- At baptisms, if the church gives baptismal candles to the newly baptized, those candles should be lighted from the paschal candle. The United Methodist Book of Worship (91, 11c) suggests the manner for lighting the candles, and it offers ideas for using the baptismal candles in the home.
- Get a candle that is long enough to last through the Great Fifty Days and the other services in which it will be needed. Be sure to get a glass or brass candle follower to save your candle from dripping and burning unevenly. It will save a lot of mess and prevent the candle from being ruined in drafty conditions. Be sure the stand you get is substantial enough so that it will not look spindly under the large candle.
For more background on the paschal candle, read chapter six of Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples. The Lectionary and calendar for Lent – Easter are missionary means of forming people in the faith and are basic to the primary task of the congregation.
Dan Benedict is retired from the Discipleship Ministries.