Saturday, March 30, 2013

Exult! – The Easter Proclamation

Image of the lighting of the Paschal Candle
from 12th century Exultet Roll

The gathering darkness of the evening of Holy Saturday finds the Church assembled in joyful expectation around the makings of a fire. A spark is struck, the fire is lit and from that fire a large candle.

A procession, centered on that large candle, moves through the church, stopping three times to proclaim “The Light of Christ”. From that candle smaller candles are lit and, little by little, the light gathers strength until it illumines the entire church. These actions speak through symbols of the dawning of a new day, the first day of a new creation, the Kingdom of the Risen One, the Light of the World.

The candle is placed in a prominent position near the altar and a deacon (or cantor) steps forward and begins to sing an ancient song, the Exsultet (or Exultet), which, in the newest English translation, begins:

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, the Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound 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.
Image of Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia) from the
Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat. 592

The song recounts the stories of the Fall, the Passover and Exodus, and the new Passover of the Lord. Memorable passages include:

O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
Harrowing of Hell from Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat.592

And the recently restored

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
Praise of the Bees from the Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat. 592
This candle, the Paschal Candle, is at once both a large, decorated candle made of wax, and a symbol of the Risen Jesus, present among us in a special way.

This chant and the accompanying actions are, like the Easter Vigil in total, a kind of “insect in amber”. Performed only once each year they have come down the centuries without much change, shortened here and there, time shifted, restored, translated, but never entirely altered. They connect us with an earlier world, more aware of the powerful but silent speech of symbols.

Opening of an Exultet Roll
Notice that the text and the picture move
in opposite directions
Indicative of how little things have actually changed are a series of rolled manuscripts, known collectively as the Exultet Rolls. Specific to medieval southern Italy, from about the 10th to the 12th centuries, they were decorated scrolls from which the deacon, standing in the ambo (pulpit) of the church, sang the chant.1

One extremely interesting feature is the fact that the illustrations and the text face in opposite directions. This is so that both parties involved in the ceremony could understand the meaning. For, while the deacon read the words and notes, the congregation could see the pictures that illustrated his words as the scroll unfurled.

Another example of the different directions for text and image
from an Exultet Roll

Several of the images from different scrolls illustrate the very action they contain, showing the church setting, the candle in place, the clergy and congregation assembled and the deacon singing,

Deacon Singing the Exultet from Exultet Roll
In this scene he gestures toward the Paschal Candle,
which is being incensed
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1072
Another Exultet Scroll showing the
deacon singing

A slightly later image of the deacon singing the Exultet
from an Exultet Roll

Tonight, those who attend the Easter Vigil will assemble in exactly the same way to repeat an ancient process and proclaim an eternal joy.

2016 update:

 See the video below for a beautifully proclaimed Exsultet from the Easter Vigil of 2016 at St. Peter's Basilica.

A Happy and Blessed Easter!
1. and

No comments: