Easter flames dispel the darkness

Monday, April 29, 2019 - Updated: 2:48 pm

QUESTION: I attended the Easter Vigil at my parish and thought that it was beautiful. But I could not help but wonder about the purpose of the fire at the very beginning.

ANSWER: The celebration of the Easter Vigil is governed by “directions” (rubrics) contained in the Roman Missal. There, we read that the vigil begins at night (when it is dark) with the lighting of the “new fire.” The rubrics indicate that it is to occur in a suitable place outside the church where a “… a blazing fire” (rogus ardens) is prepared so the people “may gather around it and experience the flames dispelling the darkness and lighting up the night.” The Latin word ardens means “hot, glowing or burning” (not necessarily “blazing”). The rubrics, however, clearly expect some flames and not a few sticks and a lighter.

The rubrics, however, acknowledge that when this cannot occur exactly, adaptations may be made. The critical question then is what guides these adaptations.

The first factor to consider must be the rubrics themselves. They indicate that “… immediately after the new fire is lit, the paschal candle is to be brought forth.” That helps us to appreciate the focus. The central purpose of the new fire is to light the paschal candle. The enduring symbol of Easter is not the new fire but the paschal candle. While admittedly the new fire evokes Christ dispelling darkness, it is the paschal candle that remains in the sanctuary for 50 days, and after that remains near the baptismal font as the image of Christ our light dispelling every darkness.

The second factor to be considered is liturgical integrity. One of the goals of liturgy is that no one element or symbol should overshadow all others. There is to be a balance between all the elements of the liturgical celebration. Therefore, to overemphasize the new fire seems not in keeping with the balance required in the entirety of the vigil.

The third factor is the size of the assembly. At times, it appears that the liturgical directives are composed as if every assembly were a small European village. Bishops in their cathedrals and pastors of large parishes realize that this is not their given assembly, and they adapt.

Finally, the safety of everyone in the assembly must be paramount. The building of a “bonfire” is dangerous anywhere and anytime. It is dangerous in areas of drought when embers could cause damage to surrounding land. It is dangerous where conditions are windy, and the fire may turn and catch vestments or clothes on fire. The movement of an entire assembly is not only time-consuming but dangerous as they return to their seats in the darkened church.

For all these above reasons, some pastors have chosen to have a fire carefully arranged in the vestibule or at the back of the church. Often it is built in a sturdy structure containing salt and alcohol. The flames are clearly visible, but without smoke. The container can be easily extinguished once the procession has departed.

Even the pope at the Vatican seems to have adapted. The preliminary rites for the Easter Vigil are held at the back of St. Peter’s Basilica and employs a container of glowing coals. The low flame is then the source from which the Easter candle is lit.


Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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