Friday, October 29, 2010

The meaning of the Easter Candle

In his book Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, Fr Hugo Rahner explains the meaning of the Paschal candle in a very beautiful way. (This is the book Dawn Eden cites in her thesis in discussing the paschal candle.) The symbolism has to do with the cross, the baptismal water, and the Church.

Here are some of the quotations he cites.
“What is water without the cross of Christ?” Ambrose asks his newly baptized, and answers, “an ordinary element.”
A post-Augustinian sermon: “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy mother, the Church.” Rahner says, “It is only by the procreative power of the cross that the church is fructified.”
He explains that ultimately the symbolism is based on Romans, with its relation of baptism to the cross. “Baptism is “the mystery of the wood in the water.’” (P. Lundberg)

“Jesus Christ was born and was baptized, so that he might sanctify the water by his passion.” (Ignatius of Antioch)

Rahner says:
“This cross symbolizes the fact that the baptismal water has through the death of Christ been made a bestower of life—it is the tree of life." Then he talks about a wooden cross that was put up in the Jordan river—in many Eastern liturgies the baptismal font is actually called “Jordan”, and a wooden cross is dipped in the water at the consecration [of baptism].

Rahner explains that the Paschal candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ.
But a new element is that the wooden cross is now a giver of light.
The same fire bursts forth from it that was associated with Jesus’ baptism.

The lighted candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ, the light of the world.

Rahner continues:

The cross is also a bringer of light, and when men seek to express this mystery in explicit liturgical form, they do so by lowering a burning candle into the baptismal font as a sign that, by the power of the cross, the water is a source of the lux perpetua, the everlasting life of light. In a word the cross is both the tree of life and the light bringer and both symbols represent Christ himself who “by his Passion sanctified the water” by giving to it the doxa, the glory which he had won upon the cross, the power of the Holy Ghost.

In thinking about how the mystery of Jesus' baptism relates to that of the cross, I was reminded of the beautiful antiphon from the feast of Epiphany:

“Three mysteries mark this holy day:
Today, the star leads the magi to the infant Christ;
Today, water is changed into wine for the wedding feast,
Today, Christ wills to be baptized by John in the Jordan River
To bring us salvation.”

And in another form:
“Today, the Bridegroom claims his Bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters, the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding, and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine. Alleluia!”

On Epiphany, the liturgy links the mystery of Christ's baptism with that of the revelation of Christ to the nations (represented by the Magi) and the miracle at Cana. I've been trying to think of how those two mysteries are also related in some way to the cross. I think it could be a fruitful area of reflection. But that will be a post for another day.


Brian Killian said...

This shows that Fr. Rahner himself thinks it appropriate to think of the meaning of the baptismal waters and the 'Christ candle' using the metaphorical language of procreation.

The basis is the cross. Much of the chapter is devoted to explaining how in St. Paul, the cross is inseparable from the meaning of Jesus baptism in the Jordan.

And it's the cross that St. Augustine and others talk about as the marriage bed where Christ consummates his marriage to the Church.

Hence, since the cross is an intrinsic part of the meaning of the baptismal rite, it will always be appropriate to use nuptial language (including the language of consumation, procreation, and fertilization) to describe it's meaning.

Also, Sr. did you note what he said about the phallic symbol prior to the quote that Eden uses? What he is rejecting seems to be associated with the views of certain scholars (whom he names) who were teaching that this liturgy derived historically from Pagan sources. That seems to be the concern.

It leaves one to wonder if this is the similar concern of the commission that rejected this mysterious "phallic symbol" interpretation of the candle as well. At any rate, there isn't a hint of any Pagan meaning of the candle in the words that are cited from West.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks, Brian, that's a good point about the pagan cults. Rahner does want to show that is not the case. In her thesis, Eden does mention that this idea was "first popularized by Hermann
Usener (a professor whose best-known student was Nietzsche). It was passed down through
Usener’s disciple Albrecht Dieterich, who argued for a Mithraic interpretation of the liturgy...."

Rahner says that the symbolism of dipping the candle into the water "is not, as was once supposed, a phallic survival from the cults. Any such interpretation implies a complete failure to understand what the historic process can and cannot do."

Rahner goes on to say that the symbolism is the same as that in the Eastern liturgy where the baptismal water is consecrated, symbolizing the doxa or glory of the Holy Spirit.

There are so many rich themes here. I hope to study it a little more. The spousal imagery in the Epiphany antiphon is very interesting, especially in how it connects the baptism of Jesus with the Epiphany and the miracle at Cana.