The Exsultet

The Lucernarium or Solemn Beginning of the Vigil (a bland title for such a visually exciting and captivating ritual!) is distinctly and deliberately different from the usual entrance procession at Mass.

We gather around a blazing fire (Missal rubrics); a shiny, large Easter candle is brought forward, engraved and grains of incense inserted; we process into a dark church; the space begins to sparkle as people’s candles are lit from the Easter candle; the candle and book are incensed.  And then the deacon or priest or a cantor chants the great Easter Proclamation.

The Exsultet (the opening word in Latin by which the proclamation is more commonly known) employs rich imagery to tell of the greatest events of our salvation story. But it is long and challenging, and needs to be proclaimed well if it is to be prayed well.  While some might be tempted for the sake of ease to use a paraphrase of the Exsultet set to a melodic tune, the text as given is arguably the best piece of poetry in our liturgical books, and there is no better musical setting than the Gregorian melody found in the Missal.

Like all the texts in the Missal, the version used since the introduction of the 1970 Missal changed in 2011. Longer and shorter forms are provided, with the shorter – the one usually used – containing eighty percent of the text of the longer version.  The revised translation retains startling, seemingly contradictory expressions such as happy fault and necessary sin.  The role of bees in producing the wax paschal candle, omitted in the previous Missal, was reintroduced.  More ancient texts of the prayer went to even greater lengths to extol the contribution of these industrious insects.

In the Exsultet, an initial cosmic shout of joyful exultation leads to the dialogue familiar from the Eucharistic Prayer, culminating in the phrase it is right and just. The rest of the text can be broken into three sections: the proclamation of what God has done as Creator; an instruction about the mystery at the heart of Easter when Christ, after his death, passed among the dead to scatter their darkness and transform their night into day; and thanksgiving for this act of redemption whose effects reach all creation through every age.

The repetition of the phrase this is the night reminds us that in liturgy we are not simply remembering or re-creating past events; rather, we are experiencing the original moment and are present to the saving acts that are recounted.  As we celebrate the Easter Vigil the waters part, the pillar of light leads the way and Christ is raised from the tomb.

For those who listen to the Exsultet proclaimed, it is important to understand that it is impossible to take everything in with a prayer as long as this. Some words and images will touch you more than others.  What speaks to you one year may not be what touches you when it is proclaimed again the following Easter.

Elizabeth Harrington