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The Symbols of Easter

Understanding the Church's Easter Tradition

The three days from Holy Thursday evening until Easter Sunday evening are known as the Triduum (a Latin word meaning ‘three days’). During these three holy days the Church remembers Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The Easter Vigil and the celebrations of Easter Sunday bring the Triduum to a joyful conclusion. It is such an important feast that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated over fifty days, from Easter to Pentecost.

The Easter Vigil and the Symbols of Easter

In the early Church the Easter Vigil lasted from sunset on Saturday until dawn on Easter Sunday. The ceremonies are now shortened but, basically, they follow this structure:

  1. A Service of Light
    The community gathers in darkness around the Easter fire which is blessed and made holy. From it the Paschal candle is lit. This is our symbol of the risen Christ. From this great candle our own small candles are lit. Holding high ‘the light of Christ’, we process into the darkened church where the Exsultet is sung with great joy.
  2. The Liturgy of the Word
    Here the stories of the key events of the Old and New Testaments are read. This culminates in the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.
  3. The Liturgy of Baptism
    The Easter water is blessed and the Liturgy of Baptism takes place. In the early Church, new members were baptised only at Easter—the season of new life in Christ. Baptism, particularly by immersion, symbolises a ‘dying’ with Christ, or a kind of ‘drowning’ to one’s old life and rising to a new one. The newly baptised are anointed with oil and clothed in white as a symbol of ‘putting on Christ’. They are given a lighted candle as a reminder to keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts.
  4. The Liturgy of the Eucharist
    After baptism, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins. In the early Church the newly baptised were led to the table to participate in the Eucharist for the first time. The eucharistic bread is made from grains that have been ground, kneaded and baked. It is made to be broken and shared. The wine is made from grapes that have been crushed. It is made to be poured out and shared. These are symbols of life, nourishment and celebration. In the Eucharist we take the bread – Jesus’ broken body – in our hands. We drink the wine of Easter, his blood poured out. We remember Jesus. We are nourished to become the Body of Christ in our world today.


The Easter Vigil

  • Explore the Triduum and Easter on this site. You may wish to test your knowledge by completing some of the activity sheets offered.
  • In his homily on the Symbols of Easter Night Bishop McMahon explores light and darkness, living water and the Alleluia song of Easter night. What does he say about the Alleluia in his last paragraph?
  • Explore this brief description of the Easter Vigil in which the symbols of light, word, water and table are explained.
  • The components of the Vigil of Easter are briefly explored on this site, which seems to be still under construction.
  • Preparing for the Easter Vigil liturgy.

The Exsultet


  • The Easter candle is the dominant symbol for the Easter season. Right from the beginning of the Easter Vigil our voices proclaim the light of the risen Christ. This symbol is also central at baptisms and funerals throughout the year. 
  • The Easter candle is likened to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Find here a description of the symbolism of the candle.


  • water in the Bible was associated both with death and with cleansing. Explore the symbolism of water in both the Old and New Testaments.
  • View pictures of water that may be used in your reflections on the symbolism of water.
  • Explore the meaning of water in various religious traditions.


  • What are the three holy oils? Explore the meaning of oil and anointing with oil.

Bread and Wine

For what you see is simply bread and a cup—this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight—the bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood. St Augustine

  • Discuss these reflections on the meaning of the Eucharist. What do they say to us about being the Body of Christ?