“Lessons from the Paschal Candle” (John 1:4-5)
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John chapter 1, verses 4 and 5.
On this Easter Day, the most glorious day of the year, we join with the whole Christian church around the world in proclaiming and rejoicing in the Resurrection of Our Lord: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” (“He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”)
Not only do we proclaim this great good news with our mouth, but also visually, the sacred artwork and appointments of the church show forth this same message. We see that today–we literally see it–in the paschal candle placed before our eyes. The candle itself is designed to portray the good news of Easter. And so our theme this morning: “Lessons from the Paschal Candle.”
The paschal candle, like the one you see in front of you, is something has been used in the Christian church for hundreds and hundreds of years. The candle is lit as the church comes into Easter morning, and then it continues to be lit throughout the Easter season. Later on, the paschal candle is used also at baptisms and funerals that occur throughout the year, tying those occasions back to their Easter connection in the resurrection of Christ.
Now the first and most obvious thing about a paschal candle is that it is . . . a candle! And the purpose of a candle is to give light. Light in the midst of darkness, that’s what a candle provides. And that’s what we saw this morning, wasn’t it? We were sitting here in a darkened room when the light of the paschal candle came into the room, along with the glorious Easter proclamation. And that’s when all the lights came on and filled this place, and all the other candles were lit from this one paschal candle.
That in itself tells us a story. We and all the other people of this world were sitting in darkness. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples,” the Bible says. That darkness is the grim reality of sin and death engulfing all peoples. You and I and every other person on earth–we have forfeited the life we had with God by our rebellion against him. We thought we knew better than God. We thought we could do things our own way. That’s the way it is with every one of us, by nature. And it’s so stupid, because we end up lost, groping around in the dark. This is the darkness of sin, and because of it we fall into the pit of death. All men sin and therefore all men die. There is a grave waiting for each one of us, and it has your name on it.
So there we were, sitting in the waiting room for death. But suddenly, without our doing anything about it, light came into the room. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” “The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” This is the light of Christ, the true light, coming into the world.
Think of the ladies going to the tomb that first Easter morning. They went to the tomb “on the first day of the week, at early dawn.” In fact, it was so early that it was still dark out. And those women were “in the dark,” both literally and figuratively. They thought they were going out to a closed tomb with a dead body in it. All their hopes had been extinguished on Friday with the death of their beloved Master. But now, suddenly, a great surprise! Light shining in the darkness! The two angels in dazzling apparel say to them: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” This is the light of Christ, risen from the dead. The grave could not hold him. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So the first lesson from the paschal candle is that the light of Christ and his resurrection life have broken into the darkness of sin and the hall of death. Now just how Christ did that–that we get a hint of by the name used for this candle. It’s called the “paschal” candle. The word “paschal” comes from the Greek word for “Easter,” which is “pascha.” And “pascha,” in turn, is a form of the Hebrew word, “pesach,” which means “Passover.” So to say that this is the “paschal” candle reminds us of what happened at the Passover. Remember, the Passover was when the plague of death struck the land of Egypt, but the homes of the Israelites were spared, because the blood of a sacrificed lamb, the Passover lamb, was on their doorposts. That was the sign for death to pass over those homes.
Now the ultimate Passover Lamb, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ. By his holy blood, by his sacrificial death–at Passover time, no less–you and I are spared from eternal death. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is “the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us and bore the sins of the world. By his dying he has destroyed death, and by his rising again he has restored to us everlasting life.”
Where the Paschal Lamb offered up that perfect sacrifice is shown right here in the center of the candle. We see the cross, as plain as day. For without the cross, there is no Easter. The cross is the reason that Easter happens. It took the death of the Son of God to pay the price for the sins of mankind. But with those sins now fully paid for, death has lost its power, its grip over us. The resurrection of Christ shows what he won for us by his crucifixion. So we see the cross as a most glorious sign on this Easter morning, and on this paschal candle.
And so the nails. Five nails are driven into the paschal candle, representing the five holy wounds of Christ: his hands, his feet, and his side. These are the marks that Christ showed to his disciples upon his resurrection, so that they would know that it was really he and that his crucifixion was no defeat but instead the greatest victory. The holy wounds of Christ therefore are shown on the paschal candle. “By his wounds, we are healed.”
Now above and below the cross and the nails are two Greek letters, Alpha and Omega. This is a very ancient symbol for Christ. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega is the last. So, Alpha and Omega–this is like saying, Christ covers everything for us, from A to Z, as we would put it. Christ Jesus, the same yesterday, today, and forever, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega. “Fear not,” our risen Lord reassures us, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” As Alpha and Omega, Christ lives and reigns to all eternity, and we will live with him, forever.
But not only do we have eternity to look forward to, Christ also comes to us right now, here in time. We see that on the paschal candle with the numerals for this year, 2013. This year, the time in which we now live–this belongs to him. We even call it “the year of our Lord” 2013. Right now the risen Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and is ruling all things for the good of his church. He rules over the rise and fall of nations. He rules graciously in the lives of his Christians. Our times are in his hands. Jesus knows and cares for you. He knows and cares for this his little flock. He is here with us right now, on Easter Day 2013. And so the paschal candle shows that the risen Christ is present with his people also in our day, even as he appeared to his disciples during the forty days following his resurrection. Throughout the rest of this Easter season, then, the paschal candle will be here to remind us of our risen Lord’s presence with us.
A candle. A paschal candle. The cross. The nails. The Alpha and Omega. And the year. Those symbols are constants on pretty much all paschal candles. Now in the particular design of our candle, there are two more lessons that we can learn. You see above and below on the candle two blue bands going around. At the bottom is a band of blue water. In the water are some fish. The fish symbol is one that may be familiar to you. It’s very ancient. It was a way to identify Christians. It identified them with their Lord. For if you take the words, “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior”–and you say them in Greek, “Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter”–if you take the first letters of those Greek words, together they spell the word, ICHTHYS, which means “fish.” Thus the fish became a symbol for Christ, and, by extension, for Christians. So here in this blue band we see some fish swimming in the water.
That explains what happens with the paschal candle after the Easter season. After Easter the paschal candle is placed by the baptismal font and lit whenever there is a baptism. This makes the connection between Christ’s resurrection and baptism. For in Holy Baptism we are joined to Christ and the power of his resurrection. St. Paul teaches this: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” St. Peter says the same: “Baptism now saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The resurrection life of Christ is delivered to us in the waters of baptism. The early church father Tertullian, writing around the year 200, put it this way: “We little fishes, after the image of our great fish, our ICHTHYS, Jesus Christ, are born in the water and can only be safe by continuing in the water.” So the paschal candle with its blue band of little fishes swimming in the water reminds us of our baptism, by which we are joined us to our risen Lord Jesus.
And finally, one more blue band at the top of the candle. This is the sky, and you can see the stars in the heavens. For the hope of heaven–this too is one of the lessons from this paschal candle. And so not only is the paschal candle lit for baptisms, it is lit also for funerals. At every Christian funeral, the sure hope of the resurrection burns brightly. Christ’s bodily resurrection on Easter Day guarantees the resurrection of our body on the last day. And with the resurrection of the body comes the life everlasting, life with Christ and his people forever. Thus the paschal candle shines with the hope of heaven.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That is the message being proclaimed by this paschal candle. We were sitting in the darkness of death when the light of Christ broke in. The light comes at Easter, the Pascha, when Christ the Paschal Lamb offered the sacrifice by which we are spared death. He did this on the cross, and in his holy wounds we find our healing. This salvation comes to us now, in this year of our Lord 2013. Christ’s resurrection life comes to us in our baptism, and so we are those little fishes swimming in the water. And that same resurrection life means that we have the hope of heaven, to live with Christ forever.
Lessons from the paschal candle. Light–and life–from Jesus Christ, the light of the world. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says to us on this Easter Day. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”