The Exsultet: the proclamation of Easter
The Exsultet—or praeconium paschale—is sung every year at the Easter Vigil, to call the people of God to worship, to proclaim the coming of Easter, and as part of the blessing of the Paschal Candle. As we enter the final days of Holy Week—the Triduum that climaxes with the Easter celebration—let us consider this ancient and beautiful hymn.
In the weeks leading to Easter—and with terrifying memories of my diaconal year—I (with fear and trembling) practise singing the Exsultet, just in case the deacon tasked with the nine-minute solo falls ill. As scary as it is to sing this most beautiful and ancient hymn, it is a good sight less anxiety-inducing than what our earliest forebears did: the back then, deacons had to improvise the thing. Thank God for liturgical standardisation. Incidentally, there is one positive by-product of this lack of uniformity, in the form of a letter believed to be by St Jerome, dated 384 CE: it is addressed to the deacon Praesidius of Piacenza, who had evidently asked Jerome for help in composing that year’s praeconium paschale. In reply, Jerome ranted about candles (he wasn’t a fan) and bees and pagan poets (parts of the Exsultet allude to Virgil’s Georgics IV), and about how he had never seen a candle blessing done well. In its entertainingly bad temper, it is classic Jerome.
Fortunately for those of us who love the Exsultet—praise of bees, and all—Jerome seems to have been in the minority. We have surviving texts for the blessing of the candle from as early as the 5th century; by the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 it had become a recommended practice. In the 7th and 8th centuries, there are regionally standardised texts, and these already bear remarkable similarity to the one we use today, especially the Roman Exsultet. This version has been attributed to many people—Ambrose, Augustine, even old Jerome—but it is, as usual, impossible to be certain. Thomas Kelly, the historian of music at Harvard on whose book The Exultet in Southern Italy I am relying heavily, argues that the text was finalised not long after 600 CE. “Finalised” is, of course, an exaggeration for any liturgical formula: for example, the passages in praise of bees will be shortened, removed, and re-inserted in different times and places before we arrive in our own day.
The Exsultet comes in two parts: a prologue and a preface. The prologue is very ancient: it is shared in common across most of our most ancient manuscripts, which otherwise vary in their prefaces. Here, the deacon bids angels to join him in rejoicing: angels, and also the whole earth, the Church, and finally, the present congregation. The preface begins, as a Eucharistic preface does, with a greeting and call to worship—”The Lord be with you”…”Lift up your hearts”—before hymning Christ, who cleanses us from sin. The use of liturgical language from the Eucharist is poignant here: deacons do not typically get to utter them. But this allusion bespeaks the solemnity of the Exsultet. From this introduction, the preface proceeds to celebrate the night of the vigil itself, referring—in imitation of a Jewish Haggadah during Passover—to the night of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, and linking it to the events of Holy Week. The next section is famous for its use of the paradoxical phrase “o felix culpa”—o happy fault—that epitomises the quintessentially Christian conviction that God can redeem all things: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer”. Toward the end of the Exsultet, we complete the blessing of the Pascal Candle, which the priest began at the beginning of the service, lighting it from the Pascal Fire: now, we offer it to God, and give thanks for the bees that made the wax from which it was made. We liken the flame—distributed to all in the little candles held by the congregation, and yet undiminished—to Christ, our Morning Star who never sets, who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Like all poetic language (as we have been considering this Lent)—like all theological language—the language of the Exsultet is stretched, and risks breaking in multiple directions. The similarity of the Exsultet to the Haggadah risks supersessionism. “O felix culpa” risks the kind of triumphalism that denies the gravity of sin and the reality of suffering. The celebration of the work of bees and the likening of Christ to the Morning Star—a name also associated with the Devil—reminds some (remember Jerome?) of paganism. And yet, these risks that we take in our theological language are also reminders for Christians to pay mind to such things: our relationships with the Jewish people, our response to sin and suffering, our reliance on and stewardship of the natural world. Theological risks are always opportunities: they are not to be avoided, but brushed up against. Theological language—like poetic language—is not safe, and serves us poorly if it acts like an opaque wall rather than a window, a glass through which to see, though inevitably darkly.
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!
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.
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.
(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.)
(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.
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.
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.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
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.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
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.
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,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
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.