WDTPRS and AUDIO: The Exsultet – explained, translated, sung – from 2005!

It’s hard to believe but this post goes back to 2005! 17 years ago!  I get requests about the Exsultet, so here you are… again.  It is about the Novus Ordo version, but in substance it applies across the board to 1962 and pre-55 (and I’ve done both of those, too, in my over 30 years).

___ Originally published in 2005

From an ancient “Exsultet Roll”, which was unfurled over the ambo showing the images in the text as the Exsultet was sung. Here we see the bees and the gathering of wax for the Paschal candle.

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 Exsultet. 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 Suburbicarian diocese) to sing the Exsultet 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 Exsultet in my home parish.

Here is my rendering of the 1970 Missale Romanum version of the Exsultet. Alas, there is no space to give you the Latin also.

The Exsultet 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 Exsultet is a poem, elements of which go back to St. Ambrose (+397). It is to be sung by a deacon (or priest or cantor in the NO) 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 Exsultet is a remembrance (anamnesis) which makes the past mysteries present to us[WE ARE OUR RITES!  – Fr. Z 2022] 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 realities 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:

2002 Missale Romanum

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:
Christ Your Son, who, having returned from the nether realm,
broke serene like the dawn upon the human race,
and now lives and reigns forever and ever.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joe says:

    I will never stop thanking God thatI was born to a Catholic family and into the Faith. That was so beautiful. Thank you, Father Z.

  2. francophile says:

    You sing really beautifully. The ends of the phrases are kept so well and the vowels are shaped marvelously. Just stunning.

  3. Pingback: The Exsultet – explained, translated, sung. | Catholicism Pure & Simple

  4. Gaetano says:

    As I listened to the Exultet last night, I recognized that it was likely the most theologically dense liturgical text in the Latin Rite.

    I greatly value the theological poetry of the Byzantine Rite, and the Exultet is the Latin text that comes closest to it.

    *Certain Latin devotional hymns (Pange Lingua & Tantum Ergo) come close.

  5. InFormationDiakonia says:

    As one in formation to become a deacon, Lord willing, on June 24, 2023, I have started developing a dread at singing this. Simply put, the Lord didn’t give me a singing voice (better talker than singer). So I fear doing this.

    As this is the deacon’s proper role (even though in the NO a priest or cantor can do it), I am attempting to learn how to chant this so that when I am given the opportunity (I will be one of two deacons), I can do it a tenth as well as you can Father Z.

  6. diaconus_in_urbe says:

    @InFormationDiakonia – looks like you’ll have about a year of being a deacon after formation before you have to tackle the Exultet. Make sure you find vocal lessons or something and work on this. It is a real shame that scant few of us deacons are adequately prepared to sing the ancient proclamation that is distinctly ours (way too often, this is this given to a lay cantor). N.b. even in the Ordinary Form Missal – only in the absence of a deacon should it be tolerated that a priest (or absurdly, historically speaking, a layperson) attempt this proclamation. I’m of the opinion that if a deacon is present at the Vigil, then he should certainly read the Exultet before anyone else is chosen to sing it, even if someone else may be able to sing it beautifully (the principle being – it is a deacon’s part – just like the proclamation of the Gospel). It is not ‘necessary,’ strictly speaking, to sing the Exultet – but it is most certainly preferable (much in the same way that singing the Divine Office is preferable to reciting it). Consequently, it seems giving the Exultet to a lay cantor ‘out of necessity,’ when ANY recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is present should be about as rare as the ‘necessity’ arising to resort to an EMHC to distribute Holy Communion instead of the presiding priest (i.e. due to a physical inability to walk or something). That being said – reciting the Exultet should be seen as a temporary solution while the deacon promptly addresses the his own inability to sing it before the next Easter Vigil.

  7. Imrahil says:

    I have never been anywhere where it was read rather than chanted. Also, I think it really really should be chanted. Though I guess “rather let it be read by a deacon than chanted by a lay cantor” is the correct choice.

    I firmly do think, though, that “rather let it be chanted dreadfully by a deacon than read perfectly by the same deacon” is the correct choice. And, we might just think, if the deacon chants it dreadfully this year, how beautiful might it sound in ten years by the same deacon, if he has sung it every year and noone has thrown in a “sorry, but no, not you” in the meantime. It is quite true that we should not willfully worship God in low quality, but that (at least in the usual things we talk about) does not mean we should desist from a particular act of worship altogether until we’re good at at. A thing worth doing is worth doing badly. (G. K. Chesterton)

    That being said, the Exsultet is not terribly difficult to sing. If someone doesn’t believe me, let him sing a Tractus from the Lenten Sunday Masses or something like it and then go back to the Exsultet. He will agree then.

    And, you know, getting some tone here or there wrong is certainly not what I meant by “dreadful”. The singer should sing with joy in his voice, obviously; something that cannot be forced, of course, but if he manages it at the price of some technical errors that’s certainly worth it.

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