Why no candles for the Easter Vigil gospel?

Here’s a liturgical puzzle for you. At least I find it puzzling.

There’s a little rubric for the Easter Vigil, both in the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms of the Mass:

Ad Evangelium non portantur luminaria, sed tantum incensum.

Literally, “candles are not carried at the Gospel, only incense.”

Fortescue expands on this but offers no explanation: “At the Gospel the acolytes stand on either side of the subdeacon or lectern, in their usual place, but do not hold candles. Incense is used as usual.” (The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, p.352)

That is the rule. The question is, why no candles at the Gospel?

I have seen and heard two explanations for this.

The first is to avoid ‘competing’ with the Paschal Candle, which already provides sufficient light and is supposed to be the main focus of the rite. I find this a bit hard to believe, given that other candles in the sanctuary are already lighted, as are the main church lights.

The second comes from Sir Walter Kirkham Blount (died in 1717), whose 1687 book The Compleat Office of the Holy Week: with Notes and Explications I cited in this post.

In his discussion of the Vigil (p. 295), he writes:

No Tapers are carried, when the Gospel is read; to note unto us, that Christ’s Resurrection (who is the True Light of the World) was not, as yet, manifested to men.

But Incense is used, to represent the Perfumes prepared by the three Maries, to anoint our Saviours Body.

If this is so, then why are the Gospel candles not withheld until Ascension or even Pentecost?

What is more, the two explanations seem to clash. The first suggests that the light of the Pascal Candle is so central (and hence so strong) that no other candle should be set against it. The second suggests that Christ is still, in some sense, ‘hidden’, even after the resurrection.

Which do you believe? Do you know any reliable sources we can use to check this? Any other explanations?


  1. I got out my Gueranger which describes the Easter Vigil even before the “Holy Week Reform.”

    Gueranger’s explanation is that the Christ’s Resurrection had not been manifested to the world, and that the women who came to the tomb did not have faith in the resurrection. All sounds like a contrived pious explanation to me.

    However something else caught my eye.

    After their baptism and the Litany of the Saints, Gueranger describes the neophytes as sitting in a prominent place in the front of the church with their tapers lit. The Gloria is sung, The Alleluia is sung. Then the Resurrection Gospel. The tapers of the neophytes could be seen as the assembly’s honor for the Gospel.

    Sounds to me a much better reason for not having the extra candles.

    I liked an Orthodox bishop’s explanation for why they do not read the Book of Revelation: “We believe it is divinely inspired but we have lost the key to its interpretation.” Maybe we have lost the key to the interpretation of this rubric.

    I also like a Rabbi’s explanation for things in Scripture. “There two answers. The first is that I don’t know. The second is….. “ Maybe we just don’t know.

  2. It sounds as if it might be a rubric designed to get the more alert laity in the pews to ask the question, why these extra candles at the gospel reading? Resulting in giving the paschal candle even greater attention.

    Then I’ve seen some priests use ONLY the paschal candle at the altar for Mass until at least the end of the Easter octave. No other candles whatsoever in the sanctuary. Some Lutheran churches seem to have picked up on this practice too.

  3. This has been on my mind for many years, mainly because many dismissed it as silly! I propose 2 reasons. One is that there were no processional candles at the beginning of the liturgy-they were left in the sacristy! The light from the fire was the only light brought into the church either on the triple candle or with the paschal candle. When individual candles for the clergy and people began to be used I don’t know. At various points in the vigil the lamps of the church and altar, always present, were lit. The second reason is more about the meaning of having no processional candles. The vigil begins in an unexpected way, at least in a way. The church is bare, no flowers on altar (at least in the old rite), etc. The only light comes from outside, from the fire, ie the unexpected resurrection of Jesus. What candles and lamps are present in the church are lit, those that aren’t, portable ones, aren’t. We could also see the paschal candle as the only processional candle for the vigil and the usual two as superfluous but this third reason is the weakest in my book. The main reason for me is that there are no processional, ie portable, candles at the beginning of the vigil and it would be strange to introduce them during the vigil

  4. The first explanation is the only one I have ever heard. It makes sense if the Paschal Candle is right next to the ambo, but not so much if it is in the center of the sanctuary.

    The second explanation strikes me as more purely allegorical in character, and probably made more sense when the Vigil was celebrated on Saturday Morning and was consequently not quite so clearly the first Mass of Easter.

  5. Fergus, the theory that there are no processional candles in the Church is interesting. At our vigil the processional candles are placed, unlighted, at the credence table before the Mass begins. They are then lighted along with the other altar candles at the Gloria. They aren’t used for the Gospel, per the rubric, but they are subsequently carried by servers during the Eucharistic prayer, and in the retiring procession. So there are lighted processional candles (torches) present, they simply aren’t used.

    Fortescue also says that the Agnus Dei isn’t said in the Tridentine Easter Vigil. Again, I wonder why.

    1. Gueranger reports a lot of other missing things:

      1. There is no Introit, even though he says the bishop leaves the baptistery and goes to the sacristy for vesting during the Litany of the Saints. He sees that and its Kyrie as substituting for the Introit.

      2. The bishop does not intone the Creed.

      3. The choir does not sing an Offertory. Gueranger says there is no offertory procession.

      4.There is no kiss of peace. Gueranger says that it is not given because Jesus did not speak these words until the evening of his Resurrection.

      5.There is no Agnus Dei; Gueranger says because of the peace invocation.

      Again all this sounds to me like pious guessing because we don’t really understand why.

      1. I would not dismiss ALL the allegorical explanations. For some things it is true that they are just “pious guesses” attempting to explain earlier practises….but others may date from the time when allegorical explanations/understandings of the liturgy had taken hold and consequently modifications were made on the strength of these understandings.

  6. The only thing that comes to mind is the text of the alleluia verses: three, from Psalm 118. Is that a clue?

    I guess I’m glad that our liturgical ancestors didn’t track when Gentiles could be admitted into Christianity without professing Judaism first. Most of us could be in for a significant wait through the first portion of the Easter Season.

  7. As for the omission of other elements (Credo, Offertorium, Agnus Dei), I would imagine it’s the usual explanation for unusual elements of Holy Week and the Triduum: ancient practices were maintained in such “strong” moments because of a reluctance to change “strong” and ancient practices.

  8. The more I look at this, the more I am convinced that the Easter Vigil isn’t really one rite but an amalgam of several. Fortescue effectively gives it six parts: the blessing of the new fire and paschal candle; the prophecies; the blessing of baptismal water and baptism; the litanies; the first Mass of Easter; and Vespers.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia calls it a day ‘of joy and sadness intermingled’.
    Fortescue, describing the Tridentine Vigil, says that the colours change throughout: the ministers wear violet at the very beginning, for the lighting of the new fire. The deacon then puts on white vestments to sing the Exsultet, but changes to violet for the prophecies. After the litanies, the ministers change to white for the Mass. The altar starts out with a white cover underneath a violet one, the outer cover is removed after the litanies.

    The acolytes don’t carry candles at the start of the rite but, as the Mass begins, they collect lighted candles in the sacristy for the procession – though they don’t carry them at the Gospel!

  9. [Apologies to the moderator for a double-post, but this does seem relevant]

    Herbert McCabe OP, no ‘traditionalist’, wrote an essay highly critical of the Vigil’s reform in the 1970s. A few excerpts:

    For a very large number of people the Easter Vigil is still ‘Midnight Mass’ at Easter, a kind of pale imitation of Midnight Mass at Christmas.

    I think the Vatican II reforms are partly responsible for this. … The magnificent restoration of the Easter Vigil of 1956, a truly awe-inspiring piece of liturgy, has been reduced … to something very different from the original celebration. … Before the [1956] restoration … ‘the Vigil’ was a very ramshackle affair and its meaning was badly obscured by the preposterous practice of celebrating it on Holy Saturday morning instead of at night. But, still, its strange power lay in its complexity and above all in the way it related the Christian mystery to very deep human things in a visual and almost tactile way, to strange things lurking in the depths of human consciousness. To put it as simply as possible: the old Easter Vigil was a very sexy affair, and the modern one looks as if Mrs Mary Whitehouse has been getting at it.

    That is from “The Easter Vigil: the mystery of new life” in God Matters (Continuum, 2005). Mary Whitehouse (d. 2001) was an English social activist known for her opposition to social liberalism and the mainstream British media, both of which she accused of encouraging a more permissive society. She became an object of mockery in the media, especially the BBC.

    So perhaps the missing candles at the Gospel are an echo from the more elaborate rite that was simplified by the reformers.

  10. My guess on the missing candles: Some sacristan or master of ceremonies at the Vatican or at some other key site forgot them one year, and that fact was duly noted in the liturgical record: No candles at the Gospel. Thus, like many other liturgical rubrics, it became law.

  11. If there are no candles for them to carry, why are the acolytes there (at the reading of the Gospel)?

  12. Originally all candles were to provide light to move about and to read. Later the reasons were developed. The Eastern Churches use candles at all liturgies even on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, even the laity hold reading candles. Very beautiful.
    Now about the Easter Vigil Gospel, it is the only time a Gospel reading is read were our Lord is not present or is not speaking: No Jesus, no light of the world. At least that’s what I was taught as a kid back in the 1950s. The Paschal Candle idea makes sense too.

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