Breaking Down the Exsultet: What we Ought to Know about the Great Easter Proclamation
The night of Easter Eve, also known as the Paschal Vigil, is perhaps the most sacred of the entire year. The Church has always kept a solemn watch on this evening, awaiting hopefully for her Lord’s Resurrection. The ceremony of the Vigil is perhaps the most elaborate, long, and beautiful that the Church offers to us each year.
The Easter Vigil, in addition to anticipating the Resurrection of Christ and inaugurating the Easter celebrations, is also the occasion on which the Church is made abundantly fruitful in the baptism of the catechumens. The catechumens truly die with Christ and rise with Christ in their baptism on this night, becoming living symbols of the Resurrection.
To keep such a solemn vigil, the Church has developed a profound liturgy consisting of four parts. It begins with the blessing of a new fire, which will enlighten the entire church, and the blessing and lighting of the Paschal candle, which symbolizes Christ rising from the dead. Then, all of salvation history will be proclaimed in a series of readings from the Old Testament, taking us from the creation of the world, through the Exodus, to the prophesies about Christ and baptism. The Gloria and Alleluia solemnly return to us, and the Gospel is proclaimed, giving us the first announcement of Christ’s triumph. After this, baptism is administered, and the Church’s newest Christians are confirmed in the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Eucharist is celebrated with all possible solemnity, and all are called to share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, which is a memorial of the Lord’s passover.
The Easter Vigil can take upwards of three or even four hours! It is truly a marathon of prayer. It is full of so much symbolism and beauty, that those who have the strength and devotion to attend are rewarded with an almost endless stream of material for meditation. One of these is the Exsultet, or the Easter Proclamation. It is the hymn of praise, sung by the deacon, to the Paschal Candle after it is brought into the Church. Let us meditate on this solemn proclamation, which can be brought to mind throughout the Easter Octave as we celebrate the Resurrection.
The Paschal Candle having been lit, and sharing its light with all gathered, the Deacon steps forward and reverences it. He begins his most solemn duty of the year by calling on the angels to rejoice with the Church this Easter:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
The praises of the resurrection cannot end with the heavenly host. All the earth must know the glad tidings:
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
The whole earth is brought out of the darkness of sin and error by the light of Easter, symbolized by this great candle’s flame! But above all, it is the Church who has reason to be glad this night. She has mourned her dear spouse’s agonizing death, and witnessed his burial. The Church was a widow these past two days, but now, all is changed:
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
The deacon shares in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and therefore is a fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood. Still, he knows his unworthiness to announce the Resurrection. He therefore calls on all the people assembled to aid him with their prayers:
Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle's perfect praises.
Now this prayer serves to sanctify the Easter candle. In some sense, it is a solemn blessing. Therefore, the deacon begins a dialogue with the people, taking as his model the preface used before the Eucharistic prayer of each Mass:
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.
V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
He now recalls the sacrifice of Christ. This Easter night, we celebrate his triumph. But his victory was won yesterday on the cross:
Who for our sake paid Adam's debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
In these stanzas, the deacon recalls the passover. As the Israelites were led out of Egypt, the sacrifice of the lamb and the passing through the Red Sea prefigured the sacrifice of Christ and the waters of baptism:
These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
Just before this Easter Proclamation, the faithful were led into the Church. At the head of the procession was the thurifer and incense. Then the paschal candle itself. Just as the Israelites were led by the Lord as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the new Israel has is fulfilling this image on this night:
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
The Easter feast celebrates Christ’s rising from the dead. The Church informs us, if Christ had not risen from the dead, we could never rise from our own sinfulness:
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
The deacon turns now to God the Father, and praises him:
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
These beautiful lines express a wonderful mystery. In mankind’s fall from grace, we became deformed. But what seemed like a tragic disfiguring of human nature, by God’s love, has earned us a Redeemer! The condition of man redeemed is even more wonderful than it would have been had man not fallen at all. That state of natural perfection was destroyed by the fall, only to be replaced with a state of supernatural perfection, for those who are joined to Christ:
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
Therefore, this night of Christ’s victory is the most blessed of the year:
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
The deacon is mindful that everything the Church does in the liturgy is done for God. This candle is a part of her sacrificial worship. He asks the Lord to accept it as a gift from the Church. Of course, the candle represents the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, who is the perfect sacrifice:
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
The Church sees the easter candle as a symbol of Christ. She even reflects on the bees who provided the wax. As I have mentioned on this blog before (because I find it so lovely that the Church thinks about these things!) bees reproduce through haplodiploidy. The sex of each bee is determined by the number of chromosome sets an individual receives. A fertilized egg results in a female, while an unfertilized egg results in a male bee. The beeswax therefore reminds her the Mother of God, who is virgin and mother, and Christ her son:
For it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
The deacon concludes the Exsultet by singing these words. He asks the Lord to receive this candle, and to allow us to dwell in its light always. For its light is the light of Christ our Redeemer, who lives now and forevermore:
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
It is my hope that meditating on this wonderful hymn will be a fruitful experience for you this Easter. I also encourage everyone to make it to the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum each year when you can. They are so full of mystery and grace. You can listen to the Exsultet chanted here.