Happy Easter to all!
The question of the symbolism around the Easter candle is one of the things Dawn Eden mentions in her thesis. As I've noted before, I think she makes a good argument in this regard. Here are some further reflections on the matter. While I’ve drawn the elements of this argument from various authors, the way I’ve put it together is the result of my own reflection on this. Comments are welcome. Thanks!
1. The Candle and the Cross
Fr Hugo Rahner was an expert in patristics. In his book Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, he explains the meaning of the Easter candle in a very beautiful way. The symbolism has to do with the cross, the baptismal water, and the Church.
He cites many quotations from the Fathers, for example:
“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 Paul’s Letter to the Romans, with its relation of baptism to the cross. “Baptism is “the mystery of the wood in the water.’” (P. Lundberg)
The main point is that the mystery of the Lord’s baptism is closely related to the mystery of the cross. Rahner says, “In this baptism of Christ there was symbolically enacted all that became reality upon the cross, all that in the mystery of baptism passes back its effects from that cross to man.” St Ignatius of Antioch voiced the same idea in saying, “Jesus Christ was born and was baptized, so that he might sanctify the water by his passion.”
Rahner points out that Christian artists began to depict the cross in the river Jordan. There was also a cross put up in the river itself. In Eastern liturgies a wooden cross is dipped in the water during the consecration of the baptismal water, intended to signify the same thing as the cross in the river.
He continues, “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 mentions another important element, that the wooden cross is also a giver of light. The same fire bursts forth from it that was associated with Jesus’ baptism:
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.
Rahner mentions an inscription found on a baptismal font at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome:
A tree bears fruit. I am a tree but I bear light.
Christ is risen. Such is the gift that I bring.
So according to Rahner, the Easter candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ. We can see this also from the five grains of incense that are put into the candle in the shape of the cross. And the candle represents not only the cross, but the light that comes from the cross.
2. The Spirit and the Cross
On the cross, Jesus hands over the Spirit
The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus died, “he handed over the Spirit.” (Jn 19:30b). What does this mean?
Several very good Scripture scholars say it means that Jesus handed over the Spirit to his disciples who were standing there by the cross. In other words, at the moment of his death Jesus is giving the Holy Spirit to the Church. (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, pp. 504, 505, Liturgical Press, 1998; also R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, p. 1082, vol. 2).
A look at the Greek text shows why this is a very plausible interpretation. The Greek is paredōken to pneuma. The word paredōken is an intensified form of the verb meaning “to give.” It indicates that a person or thing is being transferred to someone else’s possession. The Greek text also uses the definite article to, which points to the Spirit. It means that Jesus is giving the gift of the Holy Spirit, “handing over” the Spirit.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (Jn 16:7). When the hour of Jesus’ death had come and he fulfilled his mission, he handed over the Spirit to the disciples, just as he had promised.
In chapter 7 of John’s Gospel, the evangelist had said “There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (Jn 7:39) It wasn’t yet time for the Holy Spirit to be given to the disciples. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified through the cross. He reigns from the cross. So at the moment of his death he is already glorified and can hand over the Holy Spirit.
And who was there? “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” (Jn 19:25-27)
The two principal figures are Mary and the beloved disciple. When Jesus died and handed over the Spirit, they were the first ones to receive the Spirit. At the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit had overshadowed Mary and made her virginity fruitful. She became the Mother of Jesus. Now, at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit again overshadows Mary, and she again becomes a mother, not physically, but as the spiritual mother of the beloved disciple. John here anticipates what Luke brings out in Acts on the day of Pentecost. Mary was present with the disciples in the upper room when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.
In John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple is never named. It’s possible that this is because he represents the disciples of all times. (That’s not to deny he was a real person.) He is the ideal disciple, and is the example of what we are called to be. So we can see in this profound Marian text the biblical basis for calling her Mother of all the faithful, Mother of all the baptized.
Shortly after this scene, the soldier comes and pierces the heart of Jesus. Blood and water flow out, symbolizing the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. “Through the blood we have the water of the Spirit” (St. Hipppolytus).
3. Our Lady of the Font
The Marian symbolism of the baptismal font
The ideas in this section are again drawn from Fr Hugo Rahner, this time from his book Our Lady and the Church (Bethesda: Zaccheus Press, 2004). Chapter 6, “Mary at the Font,” is a most beautiful explanation of Our Lady’s connection with baptism. Fr Rahner quotes a wonderful thought from a sermon of St. Leo the Great, referring to Christ: “He bestowed on the water what he bestowed on his Mother” (Dedit aquae quod dedit matri).
Keep in mind all the points above about Jesus handing over the Spirit when he died on the cross. He bestowed the Holy Spirit on his Mother. So too, he bestowed the Holy Spirit on the water of baptism.
Going back to the Easter Vigil, what is the symbolism of the priest dipping the Easter candle into the water blessed for baptism? The candle represents the cross. Dipping it into the water symbolizes what Christ did as he died—he handed over the Spirit. The power of the risen Christ, given through the Spirit, is now communicating to the blessed water the power to bring the new life of grace to those who are baptized. In the water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side we can also see a reference to the waters of baptism. The imagery here is so rich.
At the cross, Mary stands there with John, and becomes the mother of the Church as Jesus hands over the Spirit. Just as she was a virgin in conceiving Christ, Mary is a symbol of the virginal Church bringing life to those who are baptized.
At the Easter vigil, dipping the candle in the water symbolizes the Holy Spirit flowing forth from the cross of Christ and consecrating the water to be used in baptism. Mary is mother; so too the Church is mother. That is why the baptismal font is compared to the immaculate womb of Mary.
Fr Rahner mentions an inscription found on an ancient baptistry at the Lateran, written by Leo the Great when he was still a deacon:
The Church, Virgin Mother, brings forth from the river
The children she conceived by the breath of God.
The breath of God, of course, is a reference to the Holy Spirit. After citing a few more texts, Fr Rahner states, “And it therefore follows in the strict symbolism of theology, that the womb of Mary is a true symbol of the baptismal font, from which Christians go forth as newborn children of God.”
He cites another beautiful quote from St. Peter Chrysologus:
Therefore, my brethren, when the Spirit of heaven through his mystical light has given power to the virginal womb of this water, by this power all who are made from the dust of the earth and are born earthly, are reborn heavenly, into the likeness of their Creator.
Note that the saint specifies that it is the Spirit giving power to the water. The prayer of blessing over the water at the Easter vigil also brings this out, for example, “At the very dawn of creation, your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness….. By the power of the Spirit give to this water the grace of your Son, so that in the sacrament of baptism all those whom you have created in your likeness may be cleansed from sin and rise to a new birth of innocence by water and the Holy Spirit.” Then, precisely at that point, the priest lowers the candle into the water, saying, “We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font.” Thus, the prayer of the liturgy confirms that this action represents the sending of the Spirit.
Again, this is about the action of the Holy Spirit sanctifying the waters. With that in mind, it becomes very clear that any kind of sexual symbolism in regard to the candle is completely out of place. Christ’s handing over the Spirit is not analogous to a sexual act. Let’s briefly recap the sequence of what is happening:
The candle represents the cross.
At his death on the cross, Jesus handed over the Spirit.
Lowering the candle into the water symbolizes the Holy Spirit sanctifying the waters.
The Holy Spirit empowers the Church, through the waters of baptism, to become the mother of the newly baptized Christians.
Mary as a type of the Church is also in this picture, the spiritual mother of believers. The Church is a virginal mother, just as Mary is a virginal mother.
So the action of dipping the candle into the water is not a sexual symbol, because Christ’s sending of the Spirit is not analogous to a sexual act. There is no basis for saying the Easter candle is a phallic symbol, or that dipping the candle into the water is meant to symbolize a sexual act. Such an interpretation would go against the meaning of the liturgy itself as well as the meaning of the Gospel.
All of this is not to deny the spousal imagery of the Church as the bride of Christ, the Bridegroom. That too can be a rich and fruitful source of reflection. But it seems clear that any spousal imagery in relation to the baptismal font seen as a womb concerns the mystery of virginity. It concerns the Holy Spirit imparting the life of grace through the baptismal water. Those who say that the symbolism of the womb requires a phallus are missing the point: this is a matter of a virginal conception, one that takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit. The proper comparison is when Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s power at the Annunciation. It is an overshadowing of the Spirit.
When it comes to particular elements of the liturgy, there has to be some basis for making a connection with the spousal mystery. It can’t just be something haphazard that happens to strike our fancy, like the shape of a candle. The candle could have been designed in another shape. In fact, James Monti points out, “During the Middle Ages, paschal candles more often than not were made with a square cross-section, rather than the cylindrical shape we are familiar with in our own day” (This Week of Salvation, p. 330).
Using the spousal analogy could be compared with reading Scripture. Any sound exegesis of a Scripture text has to have some basis in the text itself. If it does, we have exegesis, or a reading drawn out of the text. It it doesn't, we have eisegesis, or a reading into the text. We can’t just dream up our own interpretation of Scripture based on something we see in it that we like, or what it reminds us of. It's not like looking at clouds and imagining shapes. So too, in the spousal mystery in the liturgy, there has to be some basis in the liturgy itself for making a particular connection. As Fr Hugo Rahner points out concerning the Easter candle,
What we witness here is a symbol of Christ crucified giving to the water the illuminating power of the Spirit, and those who insist on seeing a phallic symbol in the candle appear to be completely oblivious to what not only the Roman, but all other liturgies have to declare on this particular point, of what, in point of fact, they declare with considerable emphasis. It is that the baptismal font is immaculatus uterus, and that, like Mary, the Church bears her children solely by the power of the Spirit. (Greek Myths, p. 83).
Another important point to keep in mind is that made by David Delaney in his blog post about analogy in reference to the Easter candle: “The marital act reflects the eternal Trinitarian embrace but as a pale foretaste. Thus the visible liturgical imagery must not point to the pale foretaste but to the perfect Source from which it has drawn its participated perfection.” Any analogies made have to work in the correct direction. The Trinity is the fullness of life and love. Our human loves and its expression are only a pale shadow. Our love can resemble and point to that of the Trinity, but not vice versa.
In summary, then, I have hoped to show:
1. The Easter candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ, and indeed of Christ himself.
2. On the cross, as he died, Jesus handed over the Spirit to the Church, represented by Mary and the beloved disciple.
3. At the Easter vigil, the action of dipping the candle in the water symbolically represents the sending of the Spirit to sanctify the waters of baptism. Mary, Our Lady of the Font, is a symbol of the virginal Church bringing life to the baptized.
4. This meaning excludes any supposed phallic symbolism of the Easter candle.
A Concluding Prayer
I beg you, holy Virgin, that I may have Jesus from the Holy Spirit, by whom you brought Jesus forth. May my soul receive Jesus through the Holy Spirit by whom your flesh conceived Jesus.... May I love Jesus in the Holy Spirit, in whom you adore Jesus as Lord and gaze upon him as your Son. (St. Ildephonsus, On the Perpetual Virginity of Holy Mary)