On the Paschal Candle

On the Paschal Candle–Easter Eve
By St. Augustine 

Sermon 1 (Denis I)

from Selected Easter Sermons of Saint Augustine by Philip T. Weller, S.T.D. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1959.

In paying honor to our Lord God Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible, I feel the need of your prayers, so that I may rightly proclaim the praise and glory of the most bountiful Creator, a task which I have undertaken not through my own powers but through the merciful aid of the Lord Himself. Pay attention, then, dearly beloved brethren. Btu first of all cast out of your hearts all carnal thoughts which resemble the darkness of night, and enkindle in the secret confines of your conscience the light of Christ, so that you may perceive, not with the ear alone but with the mind as well, all that the Lord will deign to communicate to you through our ministry.

2. As a candle is a light in the night, so the just man is a light in the darkness of this world. “You are the light of the world,” says our Lord to those whom He justifies. Three things are noticed in a candle: wax, a wick, and a flame. And there are three things in the just man: flesh, spirit, and wisdom. The flame gives light, the wick burns, the wax melts. Wisdom enlightens and inflames the soul, melting the resistance of the flesh. The flame burns, the wick is consumed, the wax runs down in drops. Wisdom teaches, the soul repents, the flesh sheds tears. The flame burns upward, the wick is consumed inside, the wax runs down outside. Wisdom preaches lofty things, the soul experiences interior conversion, the flesh cooperates externally. The beauty of the candle is praised by day, its brilliance honored by night. So it becomes for us an image of that pillar which led the way for the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert, and prevented them from los­ing their way. For there appeared to them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The day signifies the security of this world, the night signifies its tribulation. This is the day of which the Prophet declared in his song, “In the daytime the Lord commanded his mercy, and in the nighttime he declared it.” The Lord Christ, in coming into this mortal life, did not manifest His glory, but veiled it in mortal flesh. He appeared like the pillar of cloud in the desert. But when He comes at the end of the world, when all visible joys shall be taken away, then the Lord, no longer hidden under a human form, will shine in His glory and splendor like a pillar of fire. The pillar of fire burns and gives light. To burn is its power, to give light is its glory. To burn is to judge, to give light is to make clear. To burn is the punishment of the wicked, to give light is the happiness of the just.

3. But now we ought to explain the properties of the candle which is used in the sacred action of this great solemnity. We carry it in our hands, we behold it with our eyes, we praise it with our mouths. The wax is the work of the bee, of which Scripture says, “Go to the bee, O sluggard, and learn how she works.” So sacred is her work regarded that both kings and common folk eat her product for their own health’s sake. All admire her grace and her beauty, and no matter how frail she is, are forced to honor her ageless wisdom. Why dost thou think of us, O Christ? Why tell us to consider the bee, since she is such an insignificant insect? Because lowliness is exalted. She flies by means of two of the brightest wings. And what is more luminous than charity? For the precept of charity is likewise twofold, that we love God and that we love our neighbor, by which, as on two wings, the just man is carried up to heaven. The bee produces honey, and the just man’s mouth brings forth truth, as our Lord exclaims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And the Prophet in turn exclaims, “O taste and see that the Lord is sweet” The bees love their queen as the just love their Christ.” The bees build honeycombs as the just build churches. And as the former garner their riches from flowers, so all just men enrich themselves on the beauties of Sacred Scripture, through which they know God and glorify Him, and which are for them meadows in bloom. The bees beget offspring without lust, as the just beget Christians by the chaste preaching of the Gospel. Paul was addressing his children when he said, “If you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you.”

The honeycomb is made up of three parts: wax, honey, and incubating eggs. And the Church is made up of Scripture, intellect, and hearing. As the wax encases the honey, so the Scriptures are the custodian of the intellect. Just as the nest of eggs is contained in the wax, so the affections of the hearer are grounded in Sacred Scripture. Just as the cells of the honeycomb have eggs before they have honey, so the hidden things of Scripture, before they are understood, are the foundation of faith for the children of the Church. Just as the young bee, after making its flight, deposits honey in the wax-cells in which it has been nurtured, so the youthful members of the Church, as soon as they grow in faith and begin to control themselves with the wings of charity, fill up the ramparts of Scripture in whose veneration they find a safeguard, and surround them with even greater reverence. As when honeycombs are pressed the honey drips out and is caught up in vessels, so our Lord’s suffering forces out the meaning of the writings of the Law and the prophets, and the knowledge of these writings is diffused and caught up in the hearts of spiritual men. As wax loses its taste after the honey is extracted, and is more suited to receiving the impression of a seal, so the rulers of the Jews retained, from the Law and the prophets, the Sabbath, Circumcision, the feasts of the New Moon, the Passover, and other like ceremonies, all merely vestiges of the ancient figures, deprived of the sweetness of the Law, like wax without honey.

4. But more clearly than anything else, the honeycomb, wax, honey, and the swarm of bees symbolize the sacraments of the Church, as well as her fecundity in good works. Hence I am reminded by Scripture, by the Book of Judges, to say something, too, about the honeycomb found in the mouth of the dead lion. When Samson, that strongest of men, set out to marry a wife, he met a young lion on the way, and he seized and tore the lion as he would have torn a kid to pieces, and the strength of this ferocious beast faded away in his clutches. Then he proceeded along his course, took the woman to wife, and departed. On his return if he went out of his way to see the carcass of the lion, and found that a swarm of bees had made a honeycomb in the mouth of the dead lion. We are confronted here, indeed, with a great mystery, but owing to the pressure of time, it must suffice for us to give only a brief explanation at this moment. Pay attention now, brethren, to the best of your ability. What is signified by Samson, by the lion, by the honeycomb? I shall interpret this as the Lord inspires me.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, all powerful and acclaimed for His beauty, came into the world in order to espouse as wife the Church, who was chosen from the Gentiles, a daughter of strangers. It is to the Church that the Apostle spoke the words, “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” The young lion represents this world, those lovers of this world, that offspring of the devil, that ungodly people who in their frenzy were emboldened to go out on the way to resist the Lord, and to impede Him in bringing salvation to believers by the preaching of the Gospel. For the fury of the gentile people found expression in its rulers, potentates of this world. And their frenzy, inflamed by their father, the devil, against God’s holy Gospel, continued to rage like a young lion, although its roar lasted only until it fell into the hands of the strong man, Christ. The perseverance of the martyrs in the faith broke the pagans’ ruthless ferocity as well as the persecution’s extremely bitter force. It was through His members, imbued with fortitude, that the Lord Christ overcame the world. And now as we view the world’s monstrous pride completely annihilated over the face of the globe, who does not look with joy on the young lion lying dead upon the earth?

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