In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 

The Exsultet

 

The climax of the Paschal Triduum is the singing of the Exsultet, the Praeconium paschale, the Easter Proclamation, the proclamation of Christ’s victory and man’s salvation; the definitive triumph of light over powers of darkness.  Christ on this night has not merely survived death as one would survive an accident.  He has conquered, He holds death in his living power: “I am the Living One and I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (Rev 1.18).  Death is “swallowed up in the victory of life” (1 Cor 15:51).  In some old manuscripts the Exsultet is attributed to St. Augustine, but in more recent times it is widely held to have been written by St. Ambrose; it is certainly a text of the 4th century.

 

The  paschal candle is the formal object of this chant’s  praise.  Primarily, the candle symbolizes Christ, as Dom Guéranger noted.  Its secondary meaning is the scriptural; it looks back to the story of the Exodus.  To take this secondary meaning first: The Israelites were let out of Egypt by a column of fire through the darkness of night, and brought to the waters of the Red Sea.  Passing through the water they attained their freedom from slavery, and, they became God’s chosen people by the covenant sealed in sacrificial blood on Sinai. In Egypt the children of Israel, Abraham’s seed, were not originally the chosen people of God.  From their exterior slavery, God freed them, foreshadowing what He would do later to free mankind from interior slavery to sin. 

 

At the Easter Vigil, we see a column of fire – the lighted candle – going forward in the darkness.  It too leads people to water – the water of the Baptismal font.  This is the night when catechumens were received into the Church, and when we renew our baptismal promises.  All who pass through the water of Baptism are freed from the slavery to Satan and,by the new covenant sealed in sacrificial blood on Calvary, they become God’s chosen people of the New Testament. 

 

But primarily the candle refers to Christ, the Light of the World.  Welcomed by people at the Church door, and given honour proper to a person of importance (the Thurifer walks in front), the candle is almost treated as if it were a person: the candle is the sole giver of light, as is Christ whom it personifies.  All derive their light from it, from Him who came to enlighten everyone born into this world. The candle is moreover a symbol of the Risen Christ: it bears the marks of the wounds, or incisions.  The priest prays “By His Holy and Glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard and keep us.”

 

The candle is also marked with a cross, the instrument and sign of Christ’s victory, Alpha and Omega and the current year of salvation: to remind us that all ages belong to Him, that He has glory and dominion for all eternity.  “Our Lord has passed out of our time and become its centre because He is its fullness, its master because He is its end.”[1]

 

Exsultet iam Angelica turbam caelorum,Exsultet divina mysteria

 

What or who are the mysteria, “the divine mysteries”?  Some think the phrase is in apposition with angelica turba, just another way of referring to the angels.  But in ancient texts the word mysteria is often used for ministeria, for the  the services of the liturgy which are in fact the “divine mysteries”.  Ministeria can be taken in the sense of ministry, or of those who perform the ministries, just as, when we say “Ministry of Employment”, we mean the officials involved in that service to the public.  So here the ministria refer to the sacred ministers, the deacons, who are privileged to proclaim on earth the joy of the angels in heaven.  Thus the phrase becomes a meaningful parallel rather than a pointless duplication:  “Exalt ye heavenly choirs of angels (who carry out heavenly liturgy); exalt ye deacons (who carry out earthly liturgy).”  This is in fact a theme of the Exsultet: the union of earth and heaven.  Note too the cosmic character of Christ’s victory: angels, earth, church are united in the joy of the resurrection.  Later we will sing O vere beata nox in qua terrenis caelestia, humanis divinia iunguntis.

 

Then the deacon calls on the Church and all the people to rejoice together.  Gaudeat et tellus laetetur mater ecclesica…magnis populorum vocibus naec aula resultet (let this place resound with the joyful acclamation of the people).  The prologue is concerned with this fundamental aspect of liturgy, the coming together of clergy and people in liturgical prayer.  This is, in fact, the purpose of Easter: “to gather together, into one, all the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52); Easter transforms the world into the Church; community is the fruit of the Resurrection.

 

Then the deacon draws us explicitly into his song.  Sursum corda … Habemus ad Dominum.  Gratias agamus....Dignum et justum est  The Exsultet is really a great Preface and like all prefaces its main theme is thanksgiving and praise, rendered in solemn language, its majestic sweep enveloping both heaven and earth.  It is a solemn thanksgiving, closely connected with Our Lord’s thanksgiving at the Last Supper.  The dialogue is an invitation to be more attentive, concentrated on the great theme to be unfolded, the reasons why we are giving thanks:  the whole doctrine of our redemption. “Our Lord Jesus Christ repaid Adam’s debt for us to his eternal Father, and with His sacred blood wiped out the penalty of that ancient sin.  Qui pro nobis aeterno Patri Adae debitum solvit: et veteris piaculi cautionem pio cruore detersit. Detersit – wiped out – a genuine removal of sin, not a mere external imputation of justice.  The Sacred Blood shed on the cross is applied to the souls of men through Baptism and Eucharist to restore and nourish that divine life.[2]

 

This wonderful redemption has been prepared by numerous events, persons and things.  Of these, the Exsultet gives three: the Lamb whose blood hallowed, consecrated, the doorpost of the faithful (Exodus 12: 1-7); the Passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 19:10, 15-31); the purging away of sins blackness by the light of the fiery pillar (Exodus 13:21)

The Lamb: On that night when the Lord passed through Egypt to smite every first born in the land, both man and beast, He accepted the innocent lamb in place of the death of the Israelites.  They were saved vicariously, just as we are by the death of Christ.  The blood of the lamb was a sign of God’s special love for the Israelites, it marked them out; this is just what the Blood of Christ does for us.  That lamb, having been sacrificed, was eaten by the family; the true Lamb of God likewise desires that His flesh be eaten by the faithful when they share in the Mass, the re-enactment of his sacrificial blood-shedding.

 

The Passage Through The Red Sea brought death to the Egyptians and new life to the Israelites.  The waters of Baptism are also death-bringing and life-giving. They bring death to the “Old Man”, but life to “New Man” (Romans 6:4).

 

The Fiery Pillar: Just as the fiery pillar led people out of the darkness of the desert to the waters of The Red Sea, so now the fiery pillar of the paschal candle leads us through the darkness of the Church to the waters of Baptism (and then on to the promised land of heaven).

 

Pro tanti Regis Victoria, tuba insonet salutaris Here we are given the reason for this joy: it is for the victory of so great a King, a Victory announced by a trumpet (tuba).  In the book of Apocalypse, “7 trumpets blast” announce 7 cosmic upheavals preceding the Day of the Lord.  In Joel 2, the prophecy of the Day of the Lord begins and ends with a trumpet call at penance and prayer.  In Matthew 29:31 Our Lord speaks of angels with trumpets at the last judgement.  St Paul (1 Cor.15:52; 1 Thess. 4:15) uses the same image.  It evokes the idea of the end of the world, of the great day of Christ’s return in Majesty.  By evoking the trumpet, the Exsultet suggests that with Christ’s resurrection the last days have already begun.¹

 

The faithful are always living in expectation of the Parousia (the Lord’s second coming), but this parousia, as Père Durwell points out, is an aspect of the ever-actual mystery of the Resurrection. “It is clear that the parousia is simply the mystery of Easter as expressed in the fullness of its effects upon the faithful”. It is one single reality.  “Since Easter, human time has been advancing towards an event of the past, the resurrection of Christ, and it will only reach it at the end of history.”..[3]

 

This is the great baptismal night which celebrates not only the rising of Christ but also the rising of mankind to a new life: Haec nox est quae hodie per universam mundum “This is the night which now throughout the world restores grace and to the fellowship of holiness those who believe in Christ.”  Fellowship (sociat sanctitati): again, we have that idea of reconciliation, community as a result of the Easter event.

 

Haec nox est in qua destructis vinculis mortis, Christus ab inferis victor ascendit.

The teaching of Apostles gave an important place to the doctrine of descent into hell. (Acts 2:27).The meamimg of the descent is bound up with the good news of salvation.  (cf 1 Peter 4:6) it was the preaching of the Gospel to the dead by the Risen Christ. This preaching was not merelya word that would set them free; it bore with it a saving life. The souls of the just were made Christians by it “Thus they were baptized in the soul of Christ, the first fruits of the new Church.”[4]

 

In order to assume the entire penalty imposed on sinners, Christ willed not only to die but to go down in His soul ad infernum.  Just as on earth He was in solidarity with the living, in the tomb he is in solidarity with the dead.  Thus the descent into hell is a triumphant making known of a victory already won.  

 

O mira circa nos tuae pretatic dignatio! O inestimabilis dilectio caritatis!  Ut servum redimeres filium tradisti.“To ransom a slave thou gavest up Thy Son.”  This is connected with Passover theme of the Old Testament, and baptismal theme of the New Testament, for the identification of the believer with the body of Christ in baptism extends to him a new birth as son; from being a slave he becomes a child of God.  The Father’s action in raising Christ is a generation;[5] by it Christ becomes the first born of many brethren. (Gal.3:28, Rom.8:29): “I am going to my Father and your Father.” (Jn 20:17). We are “sons in the Son”. This is a mystery of love which mere words cannot express. Jesus’ resurrection has made possible the giving of the Spirit which will “beget” believing disciples as God’s children.  The Resurrection makes us sons of God and brothers of one another. On the cross, Jesus made his earthly Mother the Mother of his disciples; his resurrection makes it possible for his heavenly Father to be our Father. A new relationship, then, is being established between the disciples and God and with each other.

 

O certe necessarium Adae peccatum quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa…..

“O truly necessary sin of Adam that Christ’s death blotted out; O happy fault that merited such a Redeemer.”  A really startling idea!  St. Hugh of Cluny was so disconcerted by it that he felt it prudent to remove the offending words from the Exsultet Scroll used in his monastery!  What does it mean? Not that Adam’s sin was something good in itself.  What these words are stressing is the fact that God’s wisdom brought out of something intrinsically evil a good which otherwise would never have been attained – the present economy of grace.  Moreover, this redeemed state of man is even better for him than his state before the Fall.

 

The Church reminds us of this too in the collect after the 1st reading of the Easter Vigil: Deus qui mirabiliter creasti nominem, et mirabilius redemisti “God you who wonderfully created man have even more wondrously restored him…” (one returns to the same thought at the Offertory of every Mass when the priest mingles the drop of water and wine).  The idea here is expressed in Romans 5:15,20 “Where sin abounded grace still more”.  All this has come about through the wonderful goodness of God that surrounds us. (mira circa nos pietatis dignatio)  Through Christ’s redemptive act, grace has won the upper hand against sin and its consequences.

 

The deacon goes on to praise the night in which such marvellous things have happened, citing Psalm 138:12, “For you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day.”  This verse applies to Paschal night.  For the Jews the night of Passover was without darkness (14 Nisan) because it was a night of the full moon.  For Christians at Easter (the Sunday after 14 Nisan) it is Christ, the paschal candles which make the night shine as day.  The deacon reminds us that the marvels have not ceased.

 

Hujus igitur sanctificatio noctis, fugat scelera, culpas lavat, et reddit innocentiam lapsis, et maestis laetitiam   .These are the wonderful fruits of the paschal mystery and the sacraments provided we open our hearts to His grace.  These words remind us that the Vigil is ordered towards Baptism, its practical aim. It is  through Baptism that “innocence is restored to the fallen and gladness to the sorrowful”. Baptism extends to the faithful the Easter Mystery. 

 

Baptism also used to be called “the enlightening”.  In John’s Gospel, the cure of the man born blind (Chapter 9), connects baptism with the theme of light.  Thus the lighted candle which the Church offers to God during this night is also asign of baptism.  The flame of the candle (which forms the theme of the following verses) stands for the light of Christ; it symbolizes also the life of Christ, the brightness of faith and love which like the flame are not diminished but rather increased by being shared.  Qui licet sit divisus in partes, mutuati tamen luminis detrimenta non novit.  Our Christ-light, Christ-life must now be passed, spread to others; the more it is shared, the more brightly will burn our own flame. Again, the deep reality of the Church is one of communion. 

 

The deacon goes on to pray that this candle may continue to shed its light on all, and continue to banish darkness. And that its light may mingle with the stars on high (joining of heaven and earth theme). “May it mingle with the stars on high, may the morning star find its flame a glow” – (one must remember that the Vigil was an all-night affair!)

But this also refers to the parousia, our Lord’s second coming.  In other words, the deacon prays that we might imitate the Wise Virgins whose lamps were still burning when the Bridegroom arrived, that we might persevere in faith and love until we meet our Morning Star, our glorious and victorious Lord.  We who celebrate the Vigil are waiting for Christ’s return. There is a tradition that Christ will come during the Easter Vigil.  Indeed if He does not appear visibly on the clouds of heaven, He at least will come to us sacramentally in the Eucharist,another Paschal Sacrament. The Mass of the Paschal vigil has been called “a sacramental rehearsal of the parousia.”

 

With our prayers for a most blessed Triduum and joyous Easter to all our visitors!



[1] FX Dunwell, Resurrection p. 263

[2] But it would be a fundamental misunderstanding to see the cross of Jesus as a vindictive venting of divine wrath on an innocent victim. This misunderstanding can be overcome if one sees the cross of Christ, in every respect, as the appearing of the glory of God’s love in the world.In the cross, as Von Balthasar says, the whole “weight” (in Hebrew, “kabod” = weight and glory) of God’s rejection of sin is embraced by the far greater weight of God’s love who so loved the world; and by the love of the Son who loved to the end, who willingly gave His life for us.

[3] cf. Père Durwell, The Resurrection for more on this point.

[4] “In the past they were the ‘fathers’ (Rom.9:5); this title, and the descendant (Christ) from whom it derived, being their sole raison d’etre.  Now they were receiving life from Him, Christ was begetting His fathers” -  Resurrection, pg. 198.

[5] : See Psalm 2: “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” This line refers to the resurrection, as well as to the nativity. That’s why this Psalm is used in the liturgy of Easter and of Christmas.


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