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
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
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.
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.”
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.”
iam Angelica turbam caelorum,Exsultet divina mysteria
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
nox est in qua destructis vinculis mortis, Christus ab inferis victor ascendit.
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.”
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.
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
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.
certe necessarium Adae peccatum quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!)
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.”
our prayers for a most blessed Triduum and joyous Easter to all our visitors!
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