THE EXULTET: Liturgical Treasure of the Easter Vigil

The Exultet is a very lengthy, yet beautiful proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, resembling Haggadah, the great proclamation in the Jewish Pascal supper.

The deacon singing the Exultet at Easter Vigil

The Benedictine theologian of liturgy, Cyprian Vagaggini, points out that there are certain attitudes, surprisingly, within the church today, which have muddled the understanding of Easter.  First, there is a positivist-historicist mentality which kind of tricked us into seeing the resurrection of Christ separately from his passion, and, then, his passion and death separately from his resurrection, and, both of these, separate from the sacraments.  There is also a “juridic mentality” placing the whole notion of resurrection in the realm of ransom, satisfaction and merit.  There is the all too prevalent attitude— seen in the Church of this author’s childhood, and among many more “traditionalist” Catholics—of an abstract and disembodied spiritualism. This attitude unconsciously identifies man with his soul alone, devaluing the value of the body in the whole plan of salvation.

Lastly, Father Vagaggini points to a theological approach, impregnated by an abstract conceptualism, which tends to focus on abstract essences, leaving out, what some refer to as “nonessential accidents.”  He quotes an unnamed Thomistic theologian who states: “Why insist so much on the resurrection of Christ?  The great event in history is not the resurrection but, if you will, the incarnation of the Son of God.  After the incarnation, the resurrection is but a simple episode.” 1

While it has always been understood, theologically, that Easter—the Resurrection of the Lord—is the greatest feast of the Church, more attention has actually been given to Christmas.  Christmas seems to have been made for children.  A child’s first introduction to his Savior is usually to the baby Jesus, in the arms of his mother.  Christmas—at least the Christmases of this author—was a wonderful time. The Luckey family never forgot the real meaning of Christmas for a moment.  The radio played Christmas hymns, way in advance.  While not liturgically correct, because Advent is a time of expectation and repentance, this prepares society for the feast.  There was midnight Mass, big Masses on television, presents and visiting with relatives the next day.   The discovery that this was not the feast-of-feasts was a shock, met with disbelief; but it is true nevertheless.

St. Paul tells us that “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:16-17). Essentially, if it were not for the resurrection, all the other things that Jesus did and said, including his birth, would not be efficacious for our salvation.  Hence, all revolves around his rising from the dead.

The Church tells us that belief and liturgy are tied up together: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it.  When the Church celebrates the sacraments, {and, here, the Easter liturgy is particularly important as shall be seen} she confesses the faith received from the apostles—whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi.  The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1124).

This teaching is forcibly illustrated in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, especially, in the lengthy prayer, the Exultet.  The Easter Vigil is not merely an evening Mass, like the vigil of a Sunday or holyday.  It is celebrated at night, a practice restored by Pope Pius XII in 1951, because “it is rooted in the very nature of the events it commemorates.” 2  The Christians took over the Jewish feast of Passover, which was celebrated at night.  This recalled the vigil that God kept over the children of Israel on that last night in Egypt: “At midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and firstborn of all the livestock, as well” (Ex 12:29).

Passover represented the deliverance of the Israelites, as well as the beginning of their formation into the People of God.  Now, through the resurrection, there are formed the people of God’s Son.  This resurrection is the true Paschal festival, at once final and forever.  The people who were faithful to God, would be delivered from a much greater evil than Egyptian slavery, which came to an end in the death of the slave.  It freed men from the slavery to sin, which, if not compensated for, and then repented of, would lead to a slavery that would last forever. 3

In line with this Israelite tradition, the Easter vigil used to be a separate liturgical action, lasting all night, ending with Mass at dawn.  The vigil, however, was the main celebration, as strange as it may sound.  This is because it is a celebration of everything related to our salvation.  This explains the lessons, all of which revolve around the theme of newness of life. There is the creation, the saving of Noah and his family from the flood, the freeing of the Israelites from bondage, the promise to extend the descendants of Abraham to “all the nations,” the rescue of the Israelites at the Red Sea, and the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to deliver them into the Promised Land. 4

The most unique feature of the Easter Vigil is its emphasis on light.  Zechariah’s prophecy speaks of the “day [which] shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…” (Lk 1:78-79). Jesus himself says: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5). St. John emphasizes how: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” (Jn 1:4-5; 9).  And, still: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie, and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 5-7).

The ceremony of the Easter Vigil opens with the lighting of the “new fire.” 5  This is a relatively large fire, kindled outside the main entrance to the church, by the celebrant and his ministers, one of whom carries the large Paschal Candle.  The first prayer of the priest reminds the faithful that “this” is the Passover of the Lord, and that “we shall share in his victory over death.”  After blessing the fire, the priest says: “Father, we share in the light of your glory, through your Son, the light of the world.  Make this new fire holy and inflame us with new hope . . . .and bring us one day to the feast of eternal light.”  Since the early version of the service originated in the evening, candles were necessary, but in this case they are lighted ceremoniously, given the symbol of Christ as the new light that will defeat all darkness.6

The most noticeable event in the beginning ceremony is the lighting of the Paschal candle. Merely looking at the ceremony of the Pascal candle, tells one that the candle is a symbol of Christ.  It has the letters Α and Ω, to which Our Lord refers to himself in Rev 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  There are five large grains of incense in the candle inserted by the celebrant with the words: “By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”  The deacon then brings the lit candle into the darkened church, stops three times, saying: “Christ, Our Light.”

Going to the ambo, the deacon then sings the Exultet .  The Exultet is a very lengthy, yet beautiful proclamation of the importance of the resurrection of Christ.  It resembles the Haggadah, which was the great proclamation in the Jewish Pascal supper; part of the “Great Hallel” (Hallell from Hallelulia), which was the singing of Psalms 113-118 and 136.  These would have been sung at the Last Supper by Jesus and his disciples. 7  But, the focus of this great song is not on delivery from Egypt.  The delivery from Egypt is a type of delivery from the eternal death of sin. It is such an important proclamation that the congregation stands for it, as for a gospel, and the deacon reads it dressed all in white, recalling the angel at the tomb: “His appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow” (Mt 28:3). 8   It has two particular aspects.  The first is the form of a Gospel.  It is an announcement of the evangelium, the good news:

Rejoice, heavenly powers!  Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is rising!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

The second aspect is that of an anaphora, because it is a “blessing and oblation of light.” 9 The proclamation goes through the basics of salvation history, but shows types of events in the Old Testament in the anti-types of Easter: “This is the night. . . .” when the blood of the true Lamb saves the households of all believers; when the Israelites were led through the Red Sea; when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin (a clear symbol of the Paschal candle, and the pillar of fire which was the shekina or the glory of God accompanying the Israelites); when Christians are restored to grace; when Christ rose from the grave and broke the chains of death; when heaven is wedded to earth.  Then, the prayer offers the candle to God: “Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.”  The candle should, the prayer continues, mix with the lights of heaven, to dispel the darkness of this night, and may the true morning star, the resurrected Christ, find the candle always burning.

One fascinating aspect of this great proclamation is the section on original sin.  Having emphasized to him all his life how evil sin is, it is quite provocative to hear the deacon or priest sing in the Exultet:

O happy fault {referring to original sin}, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

What is this statement saying to us?  Assuming that the Franciscan theory—that Christ would have come anyway, in a non-victim role, even if Adam had not sinned—is correct, 10 original sin is the occasion for God to show the extent of his love.  Christ gave everything he had, to the last drop of blood, to grant general salvation, of which each person has the right to take advantage.  So, ultimately, this “happy fault” and “necessary sin” refer “to the fact that Christ’s redemptive, remedial coming is so much greater than the original moral illness afflicting humanity.  But in a way, it may also apply to the postlapsarian advantages accruing to the children of Adam and Eve.” 11   St. Paul wrote: “Law came in to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5: 20-21).

So, the Exultet has an enlightening and instructional function, as well as a great praise to God.  In itself, it summarizes the mystery of our salvation to the extent we are able to know it.  St. Paul wrote: “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan he was pleased to decree in Christ.  A plan to be carried out in Christ in the fullness of time, to bring all things into one in him in the heavens and on earth (Eph 1: 9-10).  In addition, Dom Jerome Gassner, O.S.B., from his writing on the Exultet, states that there is a parallelism between the structure of the Exultet, and the reproaches of Good Friday, and was intended to be so. 12  The reason for this, is that the Exultet is older than the Reproaches.  In the Exultet, there are three main events of salvation history compared with their antitypes.  First, there is Christ as the true lamb.  Second, there is the passage through the Red Sea.  Third, there is the pillar of fire.  In the reproaches, there are many more:

I led you out of Egypt from slavery to freedom, but you led your savior to the cross.

For forty years I led you safely through the desert.  I fed you with manna from heaven and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led our [sic] Savior to the cross.

I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Savior with a lance.

For your sake I scourged your captors and their first-born sons, but you brought your scourges down on me.

I led you from slavery to freedom and drowned your captors in the sea, but you handed me over to your high priests.

I opened the sea before you, but you have opened my side with a spear.

I led you on your way on a pillar of cloud {he Shekinah}, but you led me to Pilate’s court.

I bore you up with manna in the desert, but you struck me down and scourged me.

I gave you water from the rock, but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.

For you I struck down the kings of Canaan, but you struck my head with a reed.

I gave you a royal scepter, but you gave me a crown of thorns.

I raised you to the height of majesty, but you raised me high on a cross.

It is said that the history of Israel reflects the history of each one of us.  God has done so much for each one of us, personally, that an attempt to enumerate his blessings would be a major investment of time.  But, we human beings have betrayed him so much, such an enumeration of our sins and forgetfulness would also be time consuming.  In the Reproaches, we can make the link between Israel’s unfaithfulness, and ungratefulness, and our own.  Each one of us is responsible for all of the things in Christ’s passion, so beautifully and poignantly illustrated in the poem.  In the Exultet, however, the Church shows us how God turned all these things in our favor.  When we confess our sins, it is as if they were never committed; in the Exultet, things our disloyalty did to the Savior are forgotten.  The resurrection, one gets the feeling from the way the Exultet is worded and sung, was so great, it overcame all the past.  Certainly, this recalls the famous prophecy of Ezekiel:

I will prove the holiness of my great name, profaned among the nations, in whose midst you have profaned it. . . . For, I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, {a clear type of Baptism, which forgives all sins, original and actual, and which is performed during the Easter vigil}, and from all your idols, I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart, and place a new spirit within you {a type of the receiving of the Holy Spirit during Baptism}, taking from your bodies your stony hearts {referring to the stone tablets of the Law}, and giving you natural hearts (Ez 37: 23-27).

A central point of the Exultet, is the legitimate development of liturgical practices, which is similar to the development of doctrine, analyzed famously by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. 13   Father Adrian Nocent, O.S.B., shows that the Easter vigil we have today, underwent a long development.

The early Didascalia Apostolorum shows that there was a vigil containing a fasting and prayer service, culminating in the Eucharist.  The Exultet does not appear on the scene until the fourth century, while the formulary for the blessing of the new fire does not appear until the twelfth century.14  The unmistakable fact is that the developed Easter vigil, with its beautiful and instructive Exultet, is a great advance over the earlier celebration.  It demonstrates that the Holy Spirit constantly works in his Church to reveal more and more “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).  May Christ, and all his riches, be our Light this Easter Season, that we may know our way, through this passing world, to the great Feast of Heaven.

—–

The author would like to thank Sr. Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, Ph.D., for her guidance in composing this essay. 

  1. Cyprian Vagaggini, O.S.B., Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy: A General Treatise on the Theology of the Liturgy tr. Leonard J. Doyal and W. A. Jurgens (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1976) 252-3.
  2. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., s. v., “Easter Vigil.”
  3. Ibid., 15.
  4. Josef A. Jungmann, S.J., The Early Liturgy: To the Time of Gregory the Great, tr. Francis A. Brunner, C. SS. R. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959) 263.
  5. All references to the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil are taken from The Vatican II Sunday Missal Millennium Edition (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998).
  6. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy, 263-4.
  7. Dom Jerome Gassner, O.S.B., The Exultet at:  http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=6341&repos=1&subrepos=0&searchid=858741
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Vagaggini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, 14. 
  11. Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine , s. v. “Original Sin.” 
  12. Gassner, The Exultet. 
  13. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, ed., Ian Kerr (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).
  14. Adrian Nocent, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year: the Easter Season, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1977), 100-101.
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avatar About Dr William Luckey

Dr. William R. Luckey is professor of political science and economics at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA. He has a B.A. from St. John's University in New York, where he also taught for five years. He has an M.A. and Ph.D. in political philosophy from Fordham University, an M.B.A. from Shenandoah University in Virginia, an M. A. in economics from George Mason University, and an M. A. in systematic theology form the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology of Christendom College. He is widely published in scholarly and popular forms. He has been married for forty years, and has four grown children, and sixteen grandchildren. Dr. Luckey and his wife are Lay Dominicans.

Comments

  1. avatar Dcn Vincent I Laurato says:

    Indeed, it’s one of the Church’s richest treasure, indeed a type of a haggadah. However, in the new translation, it just didn’t seem to fit the musical annotations. It appeared to be wordy and seem to lose it’s impact as some of my brother deacons as well as some priests who proclaimed the Exultet this past Holy Saturday evening at the Easter Vigil. Member of the congregation had a difficult time trying to understand the meaning of the symbols such as the work of the mother bees. Yes, they knew they were responsible for the production of the Candle but what of its relationship to the Risen Christ. Also, in the Exult, there were some member of the congregation who were of the Jewish faith as one of the elect for Baptism was of the Jewish faith. The gentleman came over after the vigil and was so pleased with number of readings that were proclaimed from the Hebrew Scriptures but they were wondering when did I receive the office of “Levite” Enough said, let’s go back to the wording that is offered by Dr. Luckey in his reflection. Christ is Risen, Indeed, He is Risen.

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