Every now and then people ask me about the meaning and significance of different signs and symbols in the Cathedral. I thought I’d spend a few moments this evening talking about the paschal candle which stands by the altar during Eastertide. This might become an occasional series. Feel free to suggest others.
We renew this candle each year at the Vigil Service on Holy Saturday evening – the first Eucharist of Easter. If you were here, you will have heard me talk about no one being a witness to the resurrection – it takes place during the night and is discovered in the morning when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She has an encounter with the risen Jesus, but does not see him rise – no one does. So the Vigil service is one when we retell snapshots from the story of salvation from Creation to Easter proclamation. It makes Easter not something separate but the culmination and fulfilment of Creation, of God’s intention from the beginning and this candle stands as the sign and symbol of this.
It has symbols on the front of it. The main one is a Christogram, a stylised representation of the first two letters in Greek for Christ – the Chi and rho characters. These are often mistaken for being an X and a P, but this is not an old computer operating system. This is an ancient Christian symbol, older than use of the cross. It was in use during Roman times and has been found in mosaics in villas in Britain, and on a pewter dish found at Caerwent, dating from AD 370 – one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Wales. This candle signifies Christ, for it bears his banner, his Christogram. I use the Chi-Rho symbol as a shorthand for writing ‘Christianity’ when making notes.
Above and below it are two more Greek letters – Alpha and Omega. These are the first and the last letters in the Greek alphabet and when the New Testament writers, who wrote in Greek, wanted to represent the beginning and the end, all time belonging to God, they used their A to Z, Alpha and Omega. God is the beginning and the end of all that is; Christ is the firstborn of all creation and the fulfilment of it.
Below the Omega is this year’s date – 2022. Our dating system has been based on Christ since the 5th century when a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus – Denis the Insignificant, first came up with the idea. Before then dating was derived by how long a particular ruler had been in charge. So, Isaiah’s great vision begins ‘In the year the King Uzziah died’ (Isaiah 6). And 2 Chronicles date’s Josiah’s discovery of the book of the Law, while he had the builders in during the eighteenth year of his reign (2 Chron 34:8). Dionysius decided that these were insignificant in comparison to the advent of Christ and so he worked out what year he then thought they were in. He got his sums a bit wrong and is a few years out, but not bad given what he had at his disposal. And he started his dating scheme on the feast of the Annunciation – March 25th, so that is the proper New Year’s Day in this scheme and was until 1750 when it changed.
Set into the candle are 5 brass studs, containing grains of incense. These symbolise the five wounds of Christ on the cross – the nails in his hands and feet, the crown of thorns and the spear that pierced his side. It is by his wounds that we are healed, by this passion that redemption is brought. There is no resurrection without his death, which becomes the portal for our new life.
The first recorded mention of a paschal candle comes in a letter from St Jerome to a deacon named Presido in Italy in AD 384. It follows use of candles at Evening Prayer to dispel the darkness and Christ is referred to in John’s Gospel as being the Light of the World. So it is not surprising that this took on extra special significance at Easter. This follows Jewish practice of lighting a lamp on Saturday evenings to mark the end of the Sabbath. So it’s roots run very deep and go back to the beginnings of Christianity.
This candle stands as a sign of Christ, his completion of Creation in rising at Easter and therefore stands as a sign of the great hope we have in him. It is used at baptism – this is the candle from which the baptismal candles are lit – and at funerals reminding us that we commend our loved ones in the hope and love God. It is a special and poignant symbol in the Cathedral taking us to the heart of our faith.
Sermon for Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 8th May 2022