What Does the Prayer Really Say? SPECIAL – Easter Vigil: The Exsultet
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2004
We depart from the Roman Canon this week and give attention to the pinnacle of the Church’s liturgical year, the Easter Vigil. The EXSULTET is one of the most spectacular moments of all the Church’s liturgical life. When it is sung well in Latin the Church is in her glory! I have fond memories of singing the Exultet. The first time, I was a deacon on retreat at a monastery in central Italy, where the largest community of Benedictine nuns in Italy sing every word of their office and Mass in Gregorian chant in their 12th c. abbey. Another time, I was asked by my bishop (of an ancient Roman diocese) to sing the Exultet in Latin. We started outside in the deep night in the square before an enormous fire. It took over 10 minutes to get everyone inside, with long pauses between each “Lumen Christi!” The candle was the size of a Scottish caber. Though there was still much movement and exuberance I started singing, and when they heard the rarely use Latin and chant the great crowd quieted. As I sang about the “red-glowing flame” being “divided into parts” I could see a thousand candles and hear the fire still crackling outside as it cast flickering glows through the main door. Most precious, however, are the times I sang the Exultet in my home parish.
Here is my rendering of the 1970 Missale Romanum version of the Exultet. Alas, there is no space to give you the Latin also. The Exultet is also called the Praeconium Paschale. Paschale is an adjective of a Latinized Hebrew word pascha, for the Passover meal of the lamb. The sure and certain Lewis & Short Dictionary says the adjective praeconius, a, um is “of or belonging to a praeco or public crier” while the substantive praeconium is “a crying out in public; a proclaiming, spreading abroad, publishing.” In a Christian context this of course also infers the Good News! A praeconium is simultaneously a profession of faith and a call to faith extended to all who hear.
The Exultet is a poem, elements of which go back to St. Ambrose (+397). It is to be sung by a deacon (or priest or cantor) during the Easter Vigil as a hymn of praise to God for the light of the Paschal Candle. The text became part of the Roman liturgy around the 9th century. The text is theologically packed. It contains a summary of Easter’s mystery. Christ is risen: we too can rise in Him. This was prepared for from the fall of man, directed by a loving Father, and awaits only the end of the world, although our baptismal character allows us to live the reality now: Already, but not yet! There is an introductory invitation to “Exult!” (whence its name) given to three different groups: the angels, the Church on earth, and the whole Church together. There follows an account of works of God in the Paschal Mystery and the history of salvation. It begins with a dialog just like a Preface during Holy Mass. Like a Eucharistic Prayer the Exultet is a remembrance (anamnesis) which makes the past mysteries present to us. The singer deacon begs the congregation to pray for him as he tells the story of our family history of salvation with all the foreshadowing and “types” of our redemption. So great is God’s ability to turn evil to good that the deacon dares to call Adam’s fall our “happy fault… felix culpa” since because of it we were sent the gift of our Savior. You hear of the work of bees and the shattering of chains of sin. All evil is driven away. The constant refrain is that this is a blessed night when heavenly and earthly realties merge together and become one. Finally, there is a humble petition that God the Father will accept our Paschal candle, our evening sacrifice of praise, and make it into one of the lights of the heavens. This poem/hymn/prayer is too much to grasp all at once. But year by year we have the chance to hear it renewed in the heart of the Church’s greatest night. The mysteries within it do not change, but we do. Each year we are a little different. We can hear it each year with new insight and understanding.
Consider the setting. For forty days we have done penance. We participated at the anniversary of Holy Mass and the Priesthood on Holy Thursday with the mandatum and the procession to the altar of repose, Christ in agony in Gethsemane. On Good Friday, the day with no Mass, after our humble prostration before the Crucified Lord we stood for the singing of the Passion. Now we are in a dark church. The fire was kindled and the “Light of Christ” was thrice announced. The faithful have little candles sparked to life from the single flame of the Paschal candle, the “Christ candle”, now lighted as the symbol of His resurrection. The candle is incensed and then:
Exult now O ye angelic throngs of the heavens:
Exult O ye divine mysteries:
and let the saving trumpet resound for the victory of so great a King.
Let the earthly realm also be joyful, made radiant by such flashings like lightning:
and, made bright with the splendor of the eternal King,
let it perceive that it has dismissed the entire world’s gloom.
Let Mother Church rejoice as well,
adorned with the blazes of so great a light:
and let this royal hall ring with the great voices of the peoples.
Wherefore, most beloved brothers and sisters,
you here present to such a wondrous brightness of this holy light,
I beseech you, together with me
invoke the mercy of Almighty God.
Let Him who deigned to gather me in among the number of the Levites,
by no merits of mine,
while pouring forth the glory of His own light
enable me to bring to fullness the praise of this waxen candle.
Deacon: The Lord be with you!
Response: And with your spirit!
D: Raise your hearts on high!
R: We now have them present to the Lord!
D: Let us then give thanks to the Lord our God!
R: This is worthy and just!
Truly it is worthy and just
to resound forth with the whole of the heart, disposition of mind,
and by the ministry of the voice,
the invisible God the Father Almighty,
and His Only-begotten Son
our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who, on our behalf, resolved Adam’s debt to the Eternal Father
and cleansed with dutiful bloodshed the bond of the ancient crime.
For these are the Paschal holy days,
in which that true Lamb is slain,
by Whose Blood the doorposts of the faithful are consecrated.
This is the night
in which first of all You caused our forefathers,
the children of Israel brought forth from Egypt,
to pass dry shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
which purged the darkness of sins by the illumination of the pillar.
This is the night
which today restores to grace and unites in sanctity throughout the world Christ’s believers,
separated from the vices of the world and the darkness of sins.
This is the night
in which, once the chains of death were undone,
Christ the victor arose from the nether realm.
For it would have profited us nothing to have been born,
unless it had been fitting for us to be redeemed.
O wondrous condescension of Your dutiful concern for us!
O inestimable affection of sacrificial love:
You delivered up Your Son that You might redeem the slave!
O truly needful sin of Adam,
that was blotted out by the death of Christ!
O happy fault,
that merited to have such and so great a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
that alone deserved to know the time and hour
in which Christ rose again from the nether world!
This is the night about which it was written:
And night shall be made as bright as day:
and night is as my brightness for me.
Therefore the sanctification of this night puts to flight all wickedness, cleanses sins,
and restores innocence to the fallen and gladness to the sorrowful.
It drives away hatreds, procures concord, and makes dominions bend.
Therefore, in this night of grace,
accept, O Holy Father, the evening sacrifice of this praise,
which Holy Church renders to You
in the solemn offering of this waxen candle
by the hands of Your ministers from the work of bees.
We are knowing now the proclamations of this column,
which glowing fire kindles in honor of God.
Which fire, although it is divided into parts,
is knowing no loss from its light being lent out.
For it is nourished by the melting streams of wax,
which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious torch.
O truly blessed night,
in which heavenly things are joined to those of earth,
the divine to the human!
Therefore, we beseech You, O Lord,
that this waxen candle, consecrated in honor of Your name,
may continue unfailing to dispel the darkness of this night.
And once it is accepted as a placating sacrifice,
may it be mingled with the heavenly lights.
Let the morning star meet with its flame:
that very star, I say, which knows no setting:
Who, having returned from the nether realm,
broke serene like the dawn upon the human race,
and now lives and reigns forever and ever.