Worship Aids
The Paschal Candle

Contents
  • Introduction
  • What is a Paschal candle?
  • Why is it called the Paschal candle?
  • When do we light the Paschal candle?
  • Details for Easter
    • When and how to light and extinguish during the Easter season
    • When to finally extinguish at the conclusion of the Easter season
  • Where to place the Paschal candle?
  • Other candles and the Paschal candle
  • Next year
Introduction

Uncommon in Lutheran churches until the late twentieth century, the Paschal candle is now nearly ubiquitous. Indeed, it is the rare congregation in the WV-WMD Synod that lacks a Paschal candle. Common practice surrounding the Paschal candle, however, is not exactly common. In fact, there is great diversity in its use among us. Some of this diversity is within the realm of acceptable adiaphora. Some of this diversity, however, deviates significantly from historic and recommended usage found in our liturgical manuals, so much so that the Paschal candle looses its natural symbolism and ability to excite our piety.

This page does not advocate a Procrustean employment of the Paschal candles. This page does, however, advise upon standard usage that has developed over the course of roughly 1500 years.

If you have not reviewed the general information on planning liturgy, worship appointments, etc., please do so at our Worship Aids.

What is a Paschal candle?

In form, the Paschal candle is a large (usually largest candle) with a special set of decorations on it.

In use, the Paschal candle burns during the Easter season. It is burns for baptisms and funerals. It's placement is usually at the altar during the Easter season and at the font the rest of the year (and also for baptisms and funerals).

Why is it called a Paschal candle?

Because it is the Easter candle, i.e., a candle that has special use during the Easter season.

Paschal is an adjective indicating a relationship to Easter. It derives from the 12th-century Old French paschal which in turn comes from the Late Latin adjective paschalis derived from the Latin noun pascha, meaning "Easter of Passover." Pascha comes from the Greek πάσχα, again Easter or Passover, which, in turn, comes from the Aramaic and eventually the Hebrew for Passover.

Some have called this a Christ candle. This is a strange appellation that does little more than add to confusion over employment and symbolism. Use of this term should be avoided.

When do we light the Paschal candle?

In term of season, the Paschal candle burns during the Easter season.

Admittedly, some have argued that every Sunday is an easter, but the interpretation of the broader church has not used that line of thinking to support burning of the Paschal candle outside of the defined Easter season. In the same way, we refer to a special decorated tree as a Christmas tree, we refer to a special decorated candle as a Paschal candle. Just as a Christmas tree lit up in April would make little sense, a Paschal candle burning in November makes little sense (unless it is a baptism or funeral). With this in mind:
  • The Paschal candle should never be used in conjunction with the Advent wreath.
  • The Paschal candle should never be used as a sanctuary lamp/candle.
  • The Paschal candle should not be lit outside of the defined Easter season except for baptisms and funerals.

In terms of pastoral acts, the Paschal candle burns for baptisms and funerals.

Some have taken to burning the Paschal candle for confirmations and other special services of the church. Outside of baptisms and funerals, the employment of the Paschal candle is not indicated in any liturgical manual.
  • The Paschal candle should not be used for confirmation (or any other affirmation of baptism) unless the confirmation is taking place during the Easter season.
  • The Paschal candle should never be used as a unity candle for weddings (and should only burn at a wedding if the wedding falls in the Easter season).
  • The Paschal candle should not be used for ordinations or installations unless the rite is taking place during the Easter season.

Details for Easter

When and how to light and extinguish during the Easter season

The Paschal candle is lit during the season of Easter. This begins with the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle at the beginning of the lucernarium of the Easter Vigil. Where the Paschal candle is large enough ( usually only in cathedrals) it burns continuously (i.e., 24x7) until it is extinguished at the end of the season. As this is neither practical nor safe for most of our settings, it is recommended that the first person in the door of the church before a service should light the paschal candle, and the last person out should extinguish it (rather than including it in the lighting and extinguishing of the other candles). It should even be the case that any time the sanctuary is in use (e.g., a choir practice, a meeting, or when the space is available for prayer) the same practice of having it lit is followed.

Be sure to read the section on the placement of the Paschal candle just a little further down this page.

When to finally extinguish at the conclusion of the Easter season

When to finally extinguish the Paschal candle has been a bit of a moving target since its restoration among Lutherans.

  • A venerable Lutheran tradition had been to finally extinguish the Paschal candle during the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Thursday at the point when Jesus ascends into heaven. The symbolism of the burning candle emphasized his earthly presence from the time of the Resurrection until his ascension. This is in no way condemned. It is a fine tradition, and any who wish to continue it should do so. Of course, this may be relevant only for those who hold an Ascension Thursday service.
  • Since the introduction of the LBW, the recommendation in our liturgical manuals has been to keep the Paschal candle burning throughout the Fifty Days. This would suggest continual burning through the Feast of Pentecost, extinguishing the candle after the last service for the Feast of Pentecost has concluded making sense.
  • Some few places burn the Paschal Candle through the Feast of the Holy Trinity. This is not indicated in our liturgical manuals and is discouraged.
  • Some places keep the Paschal candle lit all year round. This is nowhere near liturgical norms and should not be done. The Paschal candle (as its very name indicates) is not lit outside of the Easter season except for baptisms and funerals.

Where to place the Paschal candle

During the time of the Paschal candle's Easter burning, except for the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle's position is at the altar after which it returns to the font. During the Easter Vigil, it's place is near the altar, but where exactly will sometimes be determined by the layout of the chancel. Those holding an Easter Vigil should refer to the Manual on the Liturgy—Lutheran Book of Worship or its LBW equivalent for guidance.

If there is a funeral, the burning Paschal candle may be used in the funeral procession and then placed at the head of the casket once it has reached its place. If not used in the procession, pre-position the Paschal candle (unlit for safety reasons) near where the casket will rest so that it may be easily moved to the head of the casket, lighting the paschal candle after it has been put at the head of the casket.

Other candles and the Paschal candle

The lighting and extinguishing of candles for the services of the church is a matter of local custom. Some congregations have rather elaborate rituals for doing so. Others struggle to find acolytes. If lighting and extinguishing the altar candles has become a challenge, a congregation might follow the advice found in the Manual on the Liturgy—Lutheran Book of Worship: light the candles well before the service begins and extinguish them well after the service ends, doing so decorously but without pomp and circumstance. This can be done by ushers, the sexton, the altar guild, the pastor, etc., vesting to do so being optional. Two other notes about the lighting and extinguishing of candles:

  • The practice of lighting the taper holder from the last altar candle and carrying a flame out of the sanctuary at the end of the service is not indicated in any liturgical manual; this practice should be discontinued.
  • If the Paschal candle is burning, the other candles may be lit from it.

Vespers, however, is a different matter. The lucernarium at the beginning of the service is a highly ritualized lighting of the candles.

Next year

Well before Easter 2025, we'll add to this page information related to the preparation of the Paschal candle, detailed rites related to it, and greater explanation of its symbolism.


West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, ℅ St. Paul Lutheran Church, 309 Baldwin Street, Morgantown, WV 26505
304-363-4030  +  Porter@WV-WMD.org

Last update: 6 May 2024
Paschal Candle