On the Reed or Tricereo (The Triple Candle)

Photo Credit: Culture and Anarchy
One of the 'lost' items of the traditional Holy Week rites is the triple candle known most commonly in English as the "reed," though also known as the tricereo, arundo, triangulum or lumen Christi. With the increased interest that is taking place around the history and symbolism of these traditional rites, and their related liturgical items, it seems like a good time to look at this object and its liturgical use and history more closely.

Form of the Reed

In terms of its basic construction, the reed takes the form akin to a "trident," being three candles on a staff.  The Catholic Encyclopedia offers the following commentary:
Both the rubrics of the Missal and the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" seem to assume that the so-called triple candlestick is not a permanent piece of furniture, but merely an arrangement of three candles temporarily attached to a reed or wand, such a reed for example as is used by the acolytes to light the candles with. "Praeparetur arundo cum tribus candelis in summitate positis" (Caer. Epis., II, xxvii, I). In practice, however, we often find a brass candlestick constructed for the purpose with a long handle. Barbier de Montault (Traité pratique, ete., II, 311) infers from the wording of the Missal rubric (arundo cum tribus candelis in summitate illius triangulo distinctis) that one of the three candles should stand higher than the other, so that the three flames may form a triangle in the vertical plane.
Here is a contemporary image of a reed.

Photo Source: Ss. Trinita Dei Pellegrini, Rome

Liturgical Use of the Reed

In terms of its liturgical use, the reed is used during the beginning of the Paschal Vigil. As it proceeds toward the altar each candle is successively lit and the deacon sings the "Lumen Christi."  An image of this can be seen in a stained glass window found in the church of St Michael and the Holy Family, Kesgrave:

Photo Credit: Culture and Anarchy (Detail)
Fr. Herbert Thurston, S.J. in his work, Lent and Holy Week, describes the ceremony accordingly:
When the fire has been lit and blessed, the thurible filled with coals, the grains of incense to be used for the paschal candle also blessed, and a taper lit with the new flame, a little procession forms and moves up the church...

Then the deacon, putting on a white dalmatic, takes a rod with three candles fixed on the top. The thurifer goes first with an acolyte, carrying on a plate the five grains of incense ; the subdeacon with the cross follows, and the clergy in order; then the deacon with the triple candle, and last of all the priest. When the deacon is come into the church, an acolyte, who carries a taper lighted from the new fire, lights one of the three candles on the top of the rod, and the deacon, holding up the rod, kneels, as do all the rest except the subdeacon, and sings alone:

V. Lumen Christi.  V. Behold the light of Christ.
R. Deo gratias.       R. Thanks be to God.

Simple as all this is, there is something very striking about the scene as the procession passes up the aisle. The contrast of the white dalmatic with the purple vestments, the new fire, the chanted words which seem to speak of hope and comfort, all these things make an impression like that of the grey light of the dawn breaking after a long spell of darkness. Three times the procession halts, the deacon repeating the Lumen Christi each time in a higher key, until all the three tapers on the reed are lighted.
Illustration from Bernard Picart, Illustrations de Cèrèmonies et Coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, Vol. 2, Amsterdam, 1723, p. 46. Via Histgüeb.  
In his work, The Ceremonies of the Holy Week in the Papal Chapel at the Vatican, Francesco Cancellieri describes the same ceremony for the papal ceremonies of the Easter vigil:
Procession to the Sixtine

The procession advances preceded by the Mace bearers and two Acolytes. The Subdeacon carries the Cross, the Deacon the Tricereo [reed] which contains three candles at the top. A Master of the ceremonies is on his left hand, holding a small taper lighted with the fire recently blessed.

On arriving at the iron railing the Deacon lowers the Tricereo, and the Master of the Ceremonies lights one of the three candles: all kneel except the subdeacon who sings Lumen Christi and the choir rising answers Deo gratias.

The Deacon having entered the chapel, the second candle is lighted in the same manner and with the same ceremonies as the first; The Lumen Christi is sung, and on arriving at the throne the third candle is lighted, and the same ceremony is performed.
Here are a few images from this weekend past showing this progression taking place, beginning with it unlit.

Photo Source: ICRSP Gricigliano
Photo Credit: FSSP Minneapolis, Church of All Saints / Tracy Dunn Photography
Photo Credit: FSSP Minneapolis, Church of All Saints / Tracy Dunn Photography
Photo Source: ICRSP Gricigliano
Photo Source: ICRSP Gricigliano

History of the Reed

On the matter of the origins and history of the reed, Thurston continues:
This triple candle springing from a single stalk seems to be a comparatively late importation into the ceremonies of the day. We hear of it first in the twelfth and fourteenth Roman Ordines, and it can hardly be older than the twelfth century. The rite is said to have been designed to symbolize the distinction of Persons in the Blessed Trinity, a distinction so forcibly recalled to mind in the formula of Baptism, but this explanation was no doubt invented after the fact. It is possible that the triple candle is in some way connected with the taper carried upon a reed, of which we hear on Maundy Thursday in the first Roman Ordo; and a passage in the English Concordia Regularis suggests that the triple form may have resulted from an older custom of procuring such new fire on three distinct days. But the true explanation is probably to be found in the wish to provide against the possible emergency of the precious fire, so newly kindled and blessed, being extinguished by a sudden puff of wind. The Exsultet miniature roughly sketched .. further on, shows a reed with a double candle-flame, and the Sarum Consuetudinary (c. 1210), says: 'Let the candle upon the reed [or rather spear (hasta) it had a serpent-shaped head and a sharp point] be lighted, and let another candle be lighted at the same time, so that the candle upon the reed can be rekindled if it should chance to be blown out.' 
The miniature of which Thurston speaks is this one, which shows another item in use as well that we recently spoke of, the Exsultet Roll:

Readers might have taken note of the description above of a "serpent-shaped head."   Here would appear to be just such an example, found in the Cathedral of Sigüenza:

(Photo Source: Histgüeb / CC BY)
Here is another similar one, also found in Spain, which was restored:

(Photo Source: Histgüeb / CC BY)
(Photo Source: Histgüeb / CC BY)
As a point of comparison. Here are two different types of design for the reed, side by side. To the left, the more common form. To the right, the serpentine form.
(Photo Source: Histgüeb / CC BY)
Another variant on this serpentine form of reed likewise shows a serpent's body coiled around the staff of the reed terminating, however, with a human head:

The Cathedral Museum of Sagovia, Spain, preserves just such an example as well:

Photo Credit: Unknown
What the meaning of this symbolism is a matter of some speculation of course. With regard to that immediately shown above, it is speculated that the serpent is that of the Book of Genesis with the head being that of Eve -- coming with reference to the fall of Adam and Eve in which sin and death where introduced to the world, but which Christ, the New Adam, would overcome with his death and resurrection.

With regard to the full serpent version, some theorize that perhaps this comes with reference to the Harrowing of Hell wherein Christ, as the Creed says, descended into Hell and delivered the Righteous who had gone before him; the light defeating the darkness, the Resurrection triumphing over death. This aligns with the Easter Vigil and the theme of the Resurrection and Light of Christ. This imagery also certainly aligns with a tradition found in Western art that often depicts this same event by showing Christ extracting these righteous from the mouths of a great serpent/dragon.

How universal this serpent like imagery was in relation to the reed is not clear at the time of writing this.  In either of these two instances, however, the common theme is that of Christ triumphing over sin and death.

I would emphasize that the question of the meaning of this specific symbolism, like the symbolism of the triple candle itself, is rather speculative. However, whatever the practical or symbolic origins of the reed, it seems plainly clear that it is a liturgical item that can bring with it various meanings that richly tie into the liturgy of Easter and the theological and doctrinal realities of the same. In that regard, it is certainly an item of continuing symbolic liturgical value and catechetical potentialities.

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