Q: I recently heard of a parish that extinguishes the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day. Why is this done, and is this an option, as opposed to leaving the Paschal Candle burning through the Day of Pentecost?
A: This is an excellent question. Prior to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was a common practice for churches to extinguish the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day. However, the 1979 BCP is absolutely clear on this practice. The rubric at the bottom of p. 287 states that “[i]t is customary that the Paschal Candle burn at all services from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost.” In short, the Paschal Candle is extinguished on the Day of Pentecost, after the final service. This is in keeping with the theology of the rubrics of the 1979 BCP. (On the importance of this BCP theology, see one of our recent articles.)
Leaving the Paschal Candle burning through the Day of Pentecost is also theologically advisable on several levels. First, Easter is not just a day but a liturgical season; it includes the Great Fifty Days of Easter (hence the term “Pentecost”). This fifty-day period is the Sabbath of the liturgical year, roughly a seventh of the entire year. Thus the Paschal Candle, as a symbol of the light of Christ that was kindled at the Great Vigil of Easter (itself a symbol of resurrection light), should be present throughout the entire Easter season, which does not end on Ascension Day. Second, extinguishing the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day promotes a kind of “representational” liturgical piety, to use the term coined by the late Anglican bishop and liturgist Kenneth Stevenson. This piety was one of three that Stevenson identified as characteristic of liturgies over the course of time. In short, “representational” piety involves a kind of acting out of the narrative of Scripture. In truth, our liturgies tend to have moments that border on “representational” piety (e.g., the footwashing on Maundy Thursday). Stevenson, though, believed that a “rememorative” piety was more theologically sound, where liturgy is undergirded and informed by events from Scripture but where deeper theological meanings are found that surpass mere acting out anew of events that happened long ago. For instance, the footwashing on Maundy Thursday occurs within a rememorative liturgy, where the footwashing takes on meaning that is enriched by the context of the entire liturgy, rather than on an overly literal reenactment of Jesus’s actions. Similarly, the Eucharist is not a reenactment of the Last Supper, for the meaning of Real Presence is something more profound than a re-doing of a meal with friends. Thus extinguishing the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day over-literalizes the symbolic significance of the Paschal Candle as a sign of Jesus’s presence, a presence that cannot be reduced to a candle flame. The argument for extinguishing the Candle on Ascension Day has been posited precisely because the light is supposed to signify the presence of Christ, and the ascended Christ went “up” to be with the Godhead on Ascension Day. But this argument falls short liturgically in that 1) it makes too much of an association of the Paschal Candle with Christ’s earthly presence; 2) it de-emphasizes the significance of the Easter season as one entity; and 3) it creates a strange reenactment of the moment of the Ascension, with the symbolic light of Christ representing Christ himself in his earthly life. It is best to adhere to the collective wisdom of the Church as imbued in the pages of the BCP: extinguish the Paschal Candle after services on the Day of Pentecost.