Lay readers are invited to skip this next bit, which falls somewhere between "inside baseball" and "liturgical trivia."
After we reminded readers to extinguish their paschal candles on Ascension Day, a rubrically alert reader commented on our "Rubrical Alert," suggesting -- well, declaring -- that in fact we ought not extinguish the candles, but rather move them to the baptismal font where they should be lit until Pentecost.
Our answer was, basically, that the rubrics vary. The old custom was as we described it; the trend since the 1960s has been toward the practice our reader described. The Roman rubrics definitely call for leaving it lit (we can find nothing in GIRM, but this is the consistent order of various diocesan newsletters), as do the the rubrics of the Episcopal Church (BCP). The Lutheran rubrics (LBW) are more conservative, perhaps because they have been updated least recently. They permit the candle either to be extinguished after the Gospel on Ascension Day or to burn through Pentecost, and then to be moved to the font. (Philip Pfatteicher, perhaps thinking wishfully, says that LBW "leans toward" the older use but "allows" the newer. And ELW seems to give no direction.)
Any conversation like this is complicated by the different ways that rubrics are understood. Among Roman Catholics, they have theoretically something like the force of law; among Lutherans, they have scarcely any authority at all. (And are frequently written in such a namby-pambily permissive fashion that, even if they had any true authority, they would say little). In the interest of ecumenical amity, we will allow our Anglican readers to tell us themselves how much weight rubrics carry these days.
But let's talk for a moment as if there were no rubrics, only thoughtful choices. Which practice is best?
Consider the internal logic. The candle itself, with its five grains of incense, is a reminder of Christ's wounded body -- and thence of his physical presence after the Resurrection. The custom of extinguishing (or removing) it after the Gospel -- or sometimes after the lesson from Acts -- grows logically from this. Why do you stand here looking for him, o (ahem) persons of Galilee? The older practice makes good sense, although it may suffer from a bit of medieval literalism.
The idea of the new practice is to recognize that the Easter season is a full 50 days, and represents the manifestation of the triune God in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It dates to an era in which the meaning of the Easter season was reinterpreted, to throw less emphasis upon the drama of personal repentance than upon that of new life for the world. (A rethinking of Lent is the most obvious expression of this same urge). A former tendency to circumscribe the 50 Days was specifically rejected, both by renumbering the Sundays of (not "after") Easter, and by using the Paschal Candle as the symbol of of a unitary 50-day season. This is a worthy goal, but we wonder whether the Paschal Candle is in fact the best symbol for such a thing.
Here is an article from the Prayer Book Society, recognizing that among Anglicans, the 50-day Paschal Candle has prevailed, but arguing passionately that it ought not. Fr. Peter Toon makes a number of dubious arguments, boiling down to "tradition is good." But he ends by making a single very good one, that the new custom "strengthens the modern tendency to discount the importance of the Ascension and to dilute the reality of the Resurrection of its physical aspects." That's no small thing, in the modern era.
Lutherans manage to show a remarkable lack of good liturgical sense. Still, it seems to us (and we are biased) that this is is one that the LBW got right, albeit in the namby-pambiest way possible. The still-newish custom of leaving the Paschal Candle lit through Pentecost strikes us, upon reflection, as a well-intentioned mistake. And so we call for a rebellion! If you are a Papist or an Anglican, dare to defy the rubrics on this one. If you are Lutheran, do what comes naturally, and take a stand against change. Aux armes, citoyens.
So what do you think, readers? Are you joining the revolution? What did you do this year, and why? What will you do next year?