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Musical Musings: Holy Week

Symbols at the Easter Vigil

by Gary D. Penkala

The Church uses signs and symbols in her liturgy to speak to believers on a profound level -- to speak without words -- to speak directly to the heart. While it is admirable to be learned in the ways of Scripture and patristics and it is desirable to know the Word of God and the teachings of the Church Fathers, liturgy oftens hopes to instruct us on a less intellectual plane. Liturgy uses symbols and signs (of which music is perhaps the most effective) to inculcate a mystery into our very being.

The Great Easter Vigil, the "Queen of Vigils," is the pre-eminent celebration of the entire Christian year. There are many symbols associated with this solemnity, some official, some tradition, some merely myth. All of them help us to surround the feast with deep meaning, and to make it take root in our hearts. We will look at some of these symbols, doing so in the order one would encounter them at the Easter Vigil, the "Nightwatch of the Resurrection."

New Fire

The symbol here is a strong fire, a primal force that signifies purging, zeal, power and awe. The fire should be made from wood and/or charcoal; from it are lit both the Paschal candle and the charcoal for the thurible. The flame should be kindled from the spark of a flint -- the natural lighting seems much more appropriate than a Bic cigarette lighter. A skittish little flame is not what the ceremony envisions -- ideally this rite takes place outside the church, and is followed by a true procession (a "holy parade") into the sanctuary. The prayer here beseeches:

Make this new fire holy, and inflame us with new hope. Purify our minds by this Easter celebration and bring us one day to the feast of eternal light.

Paschal Candle

Of course the primary visual symbol at the Easter Vigil is the Paschal candle, the symbol of Christ himself, risen triumphantly from the dead, shining as the True Light to the nations. The tradition of a large candle made of beeswax is entirely noble -- this symbol of purity has the added advantage of appealing to our sense of smell, and the bee itself has been seen as a symbol of the Resurrection. [see below] There are many rituals associated with the preparation of this candle. A cross is incised into the candle wax with a stylus, marking this pillar of victory with the sign of the gruesome instrument of death's hollow threat. Above and below the cross are marked an Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In the quadrants defined by the cross are marked the four numerals of the current year. In Christ's journey from eternity to eternity, we are privileged each year to rejoice again at his supreme miracle of redemption and resurrection. Finally, five grains of incense are inserted at the center and arms of the inscribed cross and held in place by wax nails, honoring Christ's five wounds. Sacrifice and pain is a reality, even in glory.

May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.

After this proclamation, the Paschal candle leads the faithful into the church for prayer, readings, initiation and eucharist. Three times the deacon acclaims Christ as our Light, each time more intense and higher in pitch, to which we respond, "Thanks be to God!" The highpoint of this Service of Light at the beginning of the Vigil is the Easter Proclamation (often called Exsultet from its first word in Latin). This is a glorious poetic text, often sung to an ancient melody. An accurate and inspiring rendition is the goal of every newly-ordained deacon.


Smoking incense is used here, generated from the charcoal lit by the new fire. The burning of incense signifies zeal and fervor, its sweet fragrance represents virtue, and the rising smoke symbolizes our prayer, acceptable in the sight of God. The hanging vessel in which incense is burned is called the thurible, giving rise to the name thurifer for the acolyte who carries it. The celebrant places grains of incense on the hot coals, perhaps with the words: "Be blessed by Him in whose honor you are to be burned." Honor is paid here (and throughout Mass) to the Paschal candle, to the Book of Gospels, to the altar and gifts, to the cross, to the celebrant and people, and to the Eucharist. The prayer accompanying this ritual was formerly said in Latin:

Incensum istud a te benedictum ascendat ad te Domine et descendat super nos misericaordia tua.
May this incense, blessed by you, arise in your sight, O Lord, and may your mercy descend upon us.

 Back to Holy Week Index

Part 2: Bells, Water, and more!

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