Extinguishing the Easter Candles — A Question about Symbols

Am I the only one who has misgivings when, at the Easter Vigil, the Celebrant invites the Congregation to extinguish their Easter candles at some point in the service (usually before the readings begin?

It suddenly seems as if these candles — which at the beginning of the Vigil were lit as the profound symbol of the resurrection  — are nothing more than liturgical debris, to be un-lit for the sake of convenience.  Even if we take these candles home with us and light them at our Easter meals, within the Easter Vigil  itself we are asked to make a sudden switch from holding these candles as deep pointers to the Resurrection to treating these candles as, basically, a liturgical nuisance.  It seems impractical, after all, to ask people to hold lit candles throughout a long service).

But are there other options than simply extinguishing what we just celebrated as the “light of Christ”?  Would it, for example, be possible to gather the lit candles in stands filled with sand, around the sanctuary?  Maybe some Pray Tell folks have already solved this issue?


  1. Seems to me there’s one Easter candle–extinguishing the vigil candles after the service of light and through the gospel emphasizes that fact. But also, such a suggestion of keeping them together is impractical in many parishes because of the number of people in the assembly. At my parish, those candles are relit prior the renewal of baptismal promises, so they need to be kept.

  2. That would fit in very well with those parishes who decide for whatever reason to fill their font, sanctuary, and holy water stoups with sand for Lent! When it is time to light the candles for the renewal of baptismal vows, do the people go back up and gather the half inch left of their candle, or would they get a second candle as a sign of an additional baptism? I think you are taking this too literally. At baptism, the prayer with the lighting of the candle calls for the flame to “be kept burning brightly.” Should this mean that the candle should just keep burning until the wax is used up? Does that then mean that our baptism is over?

  3. Yes, I always find it jarring when they announce, “please extinguish your candle.” However, this is a very practical point. Perhaps instead, the announcement could be: “at this time, please extinguished your candle until we light it again for the renewal of our baptismal promises.” This may alert people that there is great significance to this candle, and at the same time alert them to a most important action of this night.

  4. At our parish for as long as I can remember, we do the entire Liturgy of the Word by candlelight – the lights in the church come on all at once when the priest intones the Gloria and the bells all ring together. Which is also the time the servers go around and remove the purple veils from the statues while other servers light the altar candles. No announcement is ever made – as all the lights come on and the people in the sanctuary blow out their candles, everyone in the church automatically does so too! When the procession starts to the baptismal font, led by the deacon carrying the paschal candle, he just stops at a couple of places in the main aisle and lets people relight their candles from the paschal candle for the upcoming baptismal & renewal rite.

    Also, we haven’t used those cheap fast burning white candles with the little cardboard disks for years now. Father likes Eastern Rite stuff and a Ukrainian Catholic priest friend of his put him on to a kind of candle called a “reader’s taper” – they are thin, kind of yellow-orange in color, they smell like totally beeswax candles and maybe they are. They burn super slow and don’t drip hardly at all from what I can see. And since I help with the set up I can tell you they come in huge bundles wrapped in something almost like butcher’s wax paper from some Orthodox monastery of nuns I think in Boston, Massachusetts.

  5. At this year’s Easter Vigil, one family near the choir kept theirs lit to follow the program during the Liturgy of the Word.

    Safety is a real issue for an assembly of hundreds to maintain alertness for an extended series of readings and psalms. Would that it were not so, but I can imagine singed hair and hot wax on hands and clothes.

    The only alternative I can think of would be a place of sand–not the font–to house lit candles as people return from the procession. Dangerous, too, to retrieve at renewal of promises, I suppose.

    My new parish doesn’t re-light candles during the Liturgy of Initiation–strange that I didn’t notice that.

  6. In response to the original question, Yes, I feel misgivings. Any directive such as “please extinguish your candles” jars against what has been experienced ritually up to that point.

    This year, the celebrant where I worshiped did not give any directive. A few kept their candles lit while most extinguished them at the start of the first reading. I found that to be a sensible middle-ground.

    And in this day and age I am relieved when sensible middle-ground is found.

  7. I think the idea of doing the Old Testament readings only by candlelight in an otherwise darkened church was a practice that diminished in popularity when it was observed that it tended to reinforce hoary tropes about the darkness of Judaism…..

  8. Does the 3rd ed of the Roman Missal give directions about when to extinguish candles during the easter vigil?

    What have parishes done with the old Psachal candles?

  9. I don’t know how this escaped me. After 10 years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I realize no parish (ok there must be some, but not the Cathedral, or any other) re-lights the candles for the renewal of baptismal promises. I wonder how many parishes don’t re-light them. Or is it just something out here in the Northwest. Actually, I don’t remember it at Notre Dame in Indiana either a dozen years ago!

    Like others stated: there’s no need to tell people anything. Put it nicely in the worship aid. Some people will blow them out after the Exsultet. Some will wait until the Gloria. Some may keep them lit the entire Mass. As long as you don’t buy the cheap candles, with the flimsy paper thingies, it really doesn’t matter. Lots of parishes here use nice thick candles with plastic cups from Candlelight Celebrations (order before Dec. 31 for a discount).

    1. Just a note on Chuck’s post – we do relight the tapers for the renewal of baptismal promises at the Cathedral in Seattle. The neophytes who have just received their lighted candles and been confirmed spread the light to the assembly before the renewal begins.

  10. I don’t like extinguishing the candles, nor entering a building that is already lit by electric lights because of safety laws. Carpeting pews and floors in a church is dangerous – to a liturgy! Only this vigil did I have someone indicate that the revision of the current rubrics (see response #7) had to do with the fact of the Jewish readings being heard in darkness until the light of epistle and gospel. I prayed for years at the vigil content that the light was a symbol of the good news that comes in Christ, never imagining it to be anti-semitic. The fact is that Christians read all scriptures in the light of Christ and so we don’t ever really read Jewish scripture. Thus I think the symbol of light and darkness can be more strongly portrayed without arcane reference to the synagogue/ ecclesia at the Easter Vigil. We still process with the Gospel book over the “regular readings” of the lectionary – and we don’t consider that to be an act of belittlement. I’m for keeping candles lit and lights off. We trip over ourselves proclaiming the polyvalence of symbols – so let them be polyvalent, instead of conceiving darkened churches only and necessarily to be symbols of anti-Judaism. In fact maybe the strongest connotation of the candles during the Pascal Liturgy of the Word in light of a renewed RCIA is the progressive enlightenment of my own life enlivened by the scriptural narrative of salvation history whereby I become one of the photizomenoi.

    1. “The fact is that Christians read all scriptures in the light of Christ and so we don’t ever really read Jewish scripture.” J. Thomas

      Yes we do. The Jewish Bible doesn’t stop being the Jewish Bible simply because Christians read it. Jesus never stopped being Jewish.

      The God of the Jewish Bible is our father.

  11. I had the same feelings as presided at the vigil. One way I addressed the incongruence is before we extinguished the candles, I would ask the assembly to be mindful of the light of the risen Christ already in our hearts. This part of the liturgy reminds us of Christ’s ongoing presence, even though we may not realize it. This isn’t a perfect response, but it is a response. The ideal would be to sit around the bonfire outside and listen to the scripture stories.

  12. I think the simplest solution is to keep them lit until the electric lighting makes them redundant. If you turn on the lights after the Exsultet, per the book, it’s a pretty short stretch, and if you wait to turn them on at the Gloria, then the vigil readings are done by candlelight. Either way you avoid the still-too-common absurdity of sitting in darkness *after* a lucernarium.

    And if you simply leave them lit until the (electric) lights come on, then no announcement is necessary.

    1. Couple of thoughts: one, other lamps and candles may be lit during the lucernarium, including candles at the ambo, consecration candles, or hanging lamps. I’m not sure that the people’s candles need to remain lit with other candles and lamps burning. (I hear in the back of my head the voice of the rector concerned about safety, the voice of the sexton concerned about a waxy mess, and my own thoughts regarding the need for more substantial candles for the people, to last through the number of lessons — which, you know personally, Chris, I’m in favor of increasing by at least half — while leaving enough to have them relit for the Gospel, Baptismal Vows, Eucharistic Prayer and perhaps a reading of the Chrysostom Homily just before the dismissal. Oh, and maybe a sung solemn Te Deum after communion, too. . . .)

      Two, with regard to electric illumination, what’s to keep from bringing some of them on for the Liturgy of the Word, but keeping them subdued until the Gloria? Even the current practice at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome — this was, apparently, Guido (not Piero) Marini’s idea, BTW — is to use minimal lighting until the Gloria. Is there a balancing act to be done here?

    2. Chris, actually the book calls for the light to be “put on” after the final “Christ the light” dialogue and *before* the Exsultet. Interesting.

      But yes, it’s odd to proclaim Christ the Light, then sit in the dark. Will post about this later.

  13. Thank you for the insight and interesting questions.

    This year, we lit everyone’s candles around the fire and all carried them lighted for the entire procession.

    I missed the visual effect of the congregation getting into the church and then passing the light back and across and being able to see the movement of light as separate from the processional movement of people.

    I agree that the problem is the announcement.
    If the liturgical ministers extinguish their candles at any point, the congregation will follow suit. It is the more convenient thing to do.

    I wonder if we should not bring all the lights up during or immediately following the Exultet rather than waiting for the Gloria, as is traditional?

  14. (here is my idea, before reading other commentators).

    I wonder that the darkness issue would be avoided with a sunrise vigil. Starting maybe 15-30 minutes before sunrise, when it is still dark we would need candles to “see the light of Christ.” Part of the service of light could include removing the palls from the windows (maybe silently during the Exultet) then, if the timing is right, at the conclusion of the service of light we no longer need the candles, and yet the image of Christ being our light on his resurrection morning is preserved.

    1. For Catholics, the Vigil must occur during the night, that is, it must begin after dusk (ar rule that is sometimes honored in the breach) and conclude before dawn (which is a good deal earlier than sunrise). Most US diocesan chanceries seem to err on the side of liberality and opt for civil twilight as a measure of dusk and dawn, but there are those who use some variants of nautical twilight (the time at which the horizon is no longer readily observed at sea; a good proxy for the pre-modern measures, like the inability to distinguish white and black threads that is still used for Ramadan in Islamic practice).

  15. To me the lighting of candles from the paschal candle symbolizes our oneness with Risen Christ and each other, much as sprinkling with water symbolizes our oneness with Christ and each other in baptism. It nice that it is done in a darkened church building; that emphasizes that we are the Church. The candle lit faces of people are more impressive than the candles themselves .The building, even the candles, are just things.

    However, once this is done like every other entry rite, it is over. We should turn the church lights on, and eliminate the practice of having the choir and readers continue with little neon lights while the rest of the Church sits in darkness with only the paschal candle lit. If we turn the lights on and have the ministers extinguish their candles that should be a sufficient cue for everyone to extinguish their candles.

    I can’t see any reason to sit in darkness or wait until the Gloria or the Gospel to turn the lights on. All the readings are read in light of the Resurrection. We are not doing a historical reenactment of the Creation, the Exodus, and salvation history. Maybe keeping the lights off is part of the historicism that Rita was complaining about in another post?

    Personally I don’t see the renewal of baptismal vows as a big deal, and we could well omit relighting the candles. I see the renewal mainly as a gesture of solidarity with the newly baptized. It is not like we are re-enacting our baptisms. The Vigil Service is too long (although like Cody I would like more readings) get rid of the baptismal renewal.

    1. Yes, the avoidance of historical reenactment is also an important balancing act in liturgy. Msgr Mannion had a great essay on this point years ago.

    2. While I think getting rid of the baptismal renewal may be counterproductive, there is an argument that this rite could be used on other occasions outside the Vigil so as to keep the service focused on the readings especially when there are no baptisms. Why not, for example, the feast of the Baptism or All Saints Day, or even Pentecost?

  16. Our vigil (in the Pacific NW) began in the parking lot at 9pm. The lighting of the fire and then the Easter candle is a big deal. We got the assembly’s candles lit, heard the first reading, and then were instructed to blow out our candles and deposit them just inside the doors of the church.

    It seemed a bit silly, considering how we fought to keep the candles lit in the sometimes brisk wind! I would have preferred to keep them lit as we moved across the parking lot to the church.

    Fire marshals are quite strict around here, especially about moving large groups of people carrying open flames.

    Shannon O’Donnell (sorry! forgot the last name above!)

  17. Years ago I attended a Greek Orthodox Easter Vigil, and we were given huge candles that were burned for the full 3.5 hours! It was wonderful! The only problem was that the pooling wax would sometimes make it’s way to our hands and startle us. (It helped to stay awake through the 3.5 hours, however.) I can see how this would be problematic with small children, but I much preferred having the candles lit for the entire liturgy.

  18. This is one of the problems created after the second world war, when it was thought the liturgy needed to be reformed to make it conform to a world enamored with the modern, a contrast with the old world of world wars. The Holy Saturday liturgy made more sense before the changes to Holy Week in 1955. It was further confused by the false archeologisms after the council that posed as suitable for the modern world.
    Before 1955, the Holy Saturday liturgy began outside outside the door of the church. The new fire and 5 grains of incense were blessed there. But a triple candle was used for the procession to the choir, one being lit each time “Lumen Christi” was sung. It was during the Exultet that the Paschal candle was lit in the choir/sanctuary, and the grains of incense placed. Sadly all this beautiful poetry that accompanied these actions have been ripped out, making you wonder why you need the Exultet anymore. The lights in the church were turned on after the Paschal candle was lit.
    At the blessing of the water there was much symbolism, such as the triple breaths in the form of a cross over the water. All this symbolic beauty was suppressed after the council. The litany was always sung as the processional from the baptistry back to the choir/sanctuary. The Mass began after the litany was finished.
    Before the war, people were better instructed as to their faith whether in Catholic schools, colleges, and universities that were true to their Faith, so they did not need any special renewal of baptismal promises.
    This lighting, extinguishing, and then re-lighting of the candles is poor theatrics. It is the result of radically viewing active participation as something physical that the faithful must do in the liturgy if they are to get to heaven, as if they are too stupid to speak through the mouth of the heart rather than the mouth of the head to borrow a saying from St Augustine.
    The Novus Ordo was great for the war generation, but not others.

  19. The Roman Missal (3rd and 2nd editions) direct that people’s candles be put aside at the conclusion of the Exultet. Then both also say that people stand with lighted candles for the renewal of baptismal promises.

    It’s interesting to consider what an electricity free Easter Vigil would look like. The “lamps” of the church could be lit at the third Lumen Christi as per the rubrics but that way the light from the fire/paschal candle would truly be spreading throughout the church building.

    I’m dreaming of an electric-light-free Easter Vigil so that the rubrics make sense. Even using minimal electric lighting and lots of candles, etc around the church would by more in keeping with the traditional effectiveness of the rubrics.

    I’m also inclinded for people to keep their candles lighting throughout the whole vigil. Why not? However, as a deacon, I once had to run down from the sanctuary to “deal” with a carelessly held taper and paper surround. The reader’s taper sounds interesting. Where can these be purchased?

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