Shortly before the start of the Easter Vigil Mass, the faithful gather outside, in front of the church, to celebrate what is one of the most sacred moments of the Easter season.

It is then the priest lights the paschal candle outside in a metal bowl called a brazier. During this time, the eucharistic prayer, “Praeconium Paschale,” is chanted by the deacon, who then carries the candle into the dark church during the opening procession.

Those few moments are rich in tradition and symbolism. The new fire of the candle symbolizes life in Christ, with the candle representing the risen Lord.

Following the procession, the candle is placed in a special stand on the altar, and five grains of incense are inserted to symbolize the spices that were used to prepare Christ’s body for the tomb, and the wounds in his hands, feet and side.

During the Mass, the candle will be dipped three times into the baptismal font, accompanied by a prayer petitioning the Holy Spirit to come down in the fullness of the fountain.

Inscribed in the candle by the priest are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, signifying the Alpha and the Omega, or the beginning and the end. Also inscribed are a cross, the symbols of wheat and grapes or perhaps a chalice to represent the Eucharist.

Even the wick has special meaning. Made of beeswax, as is the candle itself, the wick signifies Christ’s humanity.

The paschal candle will remain in the sanctuary for the 50 days of the Easter season, always being lit for liturgical services, before being placed next to the baptismal font after Pentecost. At various times throughout the year the candle will be lit for a number of services, including baptisms, and frequently at funerals, when it will be placed next to the casket, serving as a reminder of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Although the origin of the paschal candle is uncertain, tradition suggests it is derived from the Lucernarium, which is the evening office early Christians believed to be inspired by the Jewish custom of lighting a lamp at the conclusion of the Sabbath.

Evidence shows that the Lucernarium rite began in the fourth century. St. Jerome mentions the rite in a letter written in 384 and Sts. Ambrose and Augustine also composed Easter proclamations regarding the rite.

At one point, the candle was broken up after the Easter Vigil, its fragments distributed to those in attendance. But since the 10th century the candle has been placed on the altar, first until the feast of the Ascension and now until Pentecost.