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Exsultet

by Gary D. Penkala

The Exsultet stands as one of the finest surviving examples of liturgical poetry in the Roman Rite. Charlton Walker writes,

Here the language of the liturgy rises into heights to which it is hard to find a parallel in Christian literature. We are drawn out of the cold dogmatic statement into the warmth of the deepest mysticism, to the region where, in the light of paradise, even the sin of Adam may be regarded as truly necessary and a happy fault.

According to G. Thomas Ryan, writing for Liturgy Training Publications,

Once a year we are privileged to experience this proclamation, one of the most beautiful vestiges of solo repertoire that has survived the nearly 2000-year history of Christian music. It comes from the tradition of the cantor/deacon office of hundreds of years ago.

The Easter Proclamation, as the Exsultet is titled in the Roman Missal (Præconium Paschale, in Latin), is properly sung by the deacon, as he has charge of the Paschal Candle during the preceding rite. Having lit the Paschal Candle from the new fire, the deacon leads the procession into the dark church, reminiscent of the pillar of fire which led the Israelites through the desert. He intones, "Light of Christ," three times, each time on a slightly higher pitch; the congregation responds to each, "Thanks be to God." Arriving in the sanctuary, the deacon places the candle in a prominent holder, brings the thurible to the celebrant for preparation, and receives his blessing. The deacon incenses the book or scroll containing the text of the Exsultet and the Paschal Candle in its holder. He then begins the glorious singing of the Easter Proclamation, a song of praise unique and unequaled in liturgical hymnody. If it is not possible for a deacon to chant this hymn, a priest or a layman may do so, although with certain adaptations. The outline below assumes a deacon is singing.

The Exsultet is structured in three sections. The first is a poetic "fanfare" with three exclamations, each beginning with, "Rejoice," (Exsultet in Latin). Then follows a sort of "Preface," making up the body of the hymn, wherein the parallels between the Old Testament Passover and the joyful Resurrection of Christ are extolled. The Exsultet ends with a prayer that the Almighty Father accept the offering of the Paschal Candle.

Examining the introduction more closely, we see a tripartite structure. Three groups are exhorted to "Rejoice!": the angels together with all the heavenly host; the earth and all creatures, and finally the Church, "echoing the mighty song of all God's people." The appropriate theme of darkness shattered by the glorious light of the Risen Christ makes its first appearance early in the hymn: "shining splendor...the brightness of your King...glory fills you...darkness vanishes forever...the risen Savior shines upon you..." The music, repeated for each of the three sections, helps delineate the structure.

The Preface proper follows. In the Mass, a preface always precedes the singing of the Sanctus at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. It enumerates the motives for our thanksgiving, often relating them to the feast being celebrated. Likewise, in this Easter Proclamation, the great events of God are presented, beginning with Old Testament Exodus from Egypt, and continuing through the marvelous salvific acts of Jesus, the new Paschal Lamb. In what might be called an expanded litany, the text proceeds to several statements beginning "This is the night..." (Hæc nox est in Latin). These phrases answer the question, "Why is this night special?," with obvious parallel to the Jewish Seder meal practice. The answer comes, "sin is destroyed...Christians are washed clean...the chains of death are broken...evil is dispelled...guilt is washed away...innocence is restored...mourners are made joyful...hatred is cast out...peace reigns...earthly pride is humbled."

In a poetry uncharacteristic of the Roman Rite, the Proclamation has us ponder: "What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?" "To ransom a slave, Father, you gave away your Son." "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" "Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God!"

The Exsultet concludes with a prayer of offering. "Accept this Easter Candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God." The deacon beseeches that the candle flame mingle with the heavenly lights, and that the Morning Star (Christ) find this flame still burning.

The music is powerful, derived from the ancient chants for the Prefaces. The version with Latin text (Exsultet iam angelica turba cælorum...) can be found in Roman Missals dated as late as 1964. It has been adequately adapted to the English text (Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!...) found in the 1985 Sacramentary. The beautiful text painting, the rising fifth on the words Tuba insonet salutaris, is only slightly misplaced in the English, "Sound the trumpet of salvation."

Practicing the Exsultet has always been a cherished experience for newly-ordained deacons. It remains a text that is truly theirs. It is the deacon, not the celebrant, not the priest, not the bishop, not even the pope, who is given the opportunity to first announce the joyful news of the Lord's resurrection, as well as its practical ramifications for our new life. This "servant-deacon," lowest among the ranks of ordained ministers, is exalted in his glorious proclamation that the universe is changed forever -- Christ is risen! What a wonderful paradox -- "O happy twist!"

See CNP's chant CD, And With Your Spirit, containing the sung parts of the liturgy, including the Exsultet, for deacons and priests to practice.


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