Several people have told me how much they appreciate the opening rites for the Easter Vigil when we gather to bless the new fire and light the Paschal Candle from this fire. It is indeed a memorable and somewhat unique rite, even for us Catholics who love ritual. And as we celebrate this rite in our customary grand way, you may have noted that we again caused passing traffic to slow down. Thankfully, I know of no accidents due to curious gawking. And the fire department did not make an unexpected appearance. Yet, what a statement we make. Personally, I think it much better than the electronic signs wishing everyone a happy Easter and announcing the arrival of the Easter Bunny which have become all too popular.
The Easter Fire is actually pagan in origin. It originates in the Saxon custom of lighting fires to mark the passing of the seasons. This was done in celebration of the returning of the light at the spring equinox and the fullness of light during the summer solstice. Though not as popular it was also done occasionally in mourning for the diminishing of the light at the fall equinox and to break the depth of darkness at the time of the winter solstice.
The fire lit to mark the spring equinox was the most popular. Not only did it allow for a celebration of the end of winter and the return of the light it also had very practical implications. All the unwanted vegetation was burned in the bonfires. The resulting ashes were used as a fertilizer for the fields. Thus these spring fires symbolize light, they help with cleansing and result in increased fertility.
Christians easily “baptized” this ritual as the season of Lent and Easter clearly is about cleansing, light and fertility. The Lenten exercises are intended as a spiritual cleansing. During the Easter Vigil we celebrate Christ, the Light of the World who conquered darkness. And from the baptismal waters new Christians are born. All this is celebrated and anticipated with the Easter Fire. That is what the fire is all about.