The Excellent Exsultet
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!”
Each time I hear this being sung at the beginning of every Easter vigil Mass, my heart and soul simply feel so uplifted, ready to exalt in the Resurrection of Christ together with His Church! The Exsultet holds such deep meaning, both in its verses and in the beautiful symbolism it uses. A century-old prayer that has been almost unaltered since the Middle Ages, the practice probably dates to even before that.
This beautiful hymn accompanies the lighting of the candles during the initial Service of Light of the Vigil as the darkness of the Church is broken by the gentle yet steady flames of the candles. It heralds the start of the vigil and prepares us for the great celebration of Easter. My goodness, I could go on and on about this brilliant hymn and the meanings about it that I’ve read up on. But I’m neither qualified enough, (going to leave the lit stuff to the very talented Garrett) nor will this article have enough space to fully capture the depth of this hymn. Instead, I thought it would be a good reminder, as the Easter season comes to a close, about the message of Easter.
I think, looking at the Exsultet, it falls nicely into 3 major themes. The first is one of praise. At its core, it is a call of exultation; a hymn of praise to God for His penultimate act of Love. It is not a quiet praise nor a personal thanksgiving; it is a praise that comes from the very depths of the souls of every human, a praise that transcends the Earth into the Heavens, a praise that “let(s) this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” It calls us to remember that our entire being should be to bring praise to God, that no matter the darkness, no matter the gloom, we are called to be joyful people of the Light whose very lives seek to glorify and praise the name of He who has saved us on the Cross. Indeed, as the line goes in the Exsultet:
“It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart and with devoted service of our voice, to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.”
The second theme, following the call of praise and exultation at the start, is the theme of salvation. The history of humanity has always been one of salvation and love. The middle part of the Exsultet proclaims this: the sacrifice of Christ,
“Who for our sake paid Adam's debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.”
The best part? It never, and will never, stop at the past. It extends all the way through salvation history from Adam to the Israelites in Egypt to this very day.
“This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.”
Since the fall of Man up until this very moment you’re reading this article, and all the way till the second coming of God, the central message remains the same: a message of the limitless Love of God and the salvation of humanity back into unity with God. A message that we will continue to hold in our hearts, knowing that though we may fall and stumble and be chained to the darkness, the victory has already been won and the Light of God will never go out. The fire of Christ in our hearts will never go out if we only look to Him to rekindle it each and every time it dims.
And the final theme (at least for this article) is one of unity; unity not just of humankind but that of Heaven and Earth, of Nature and Man, of Divinity and humanity.
“O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.”
I used to think that some of these verses seem a bit superfluous. I mean they talk of bees and wax to build the candle and talk of the fragrance of the candle. (The original text apparently had quite a bit more to say about the bees apparently. They mustn’t have been too bee-sy since they took so much time to talk about the bees.) However, reading up and pondering on it, it now makes a bit more sense.
Humanity cannot be divorced from nature. The Exsultet echoes the words during offering of the bread and wine. The bread is “the fruit of the earth and work of human hands”, the wine is “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” and the candle is “work of the bees and of your servants’ hands”. It is a reminder of Genesis, in which the Earth and all its living things was entrusted to humankind for his/her use but only as stewards, and not as Creator. The emphasis on the natural part leads up to an emphasis on the Creator of nature: God. At the end of it all, Jesus came down so that he could reform humanity’s broken friendship with God. He was the epitome of unity: both human and Divine. In this final part of the Exsultet, I am reminded of two very important things. I am reminded that my purpose on this Earth is not simply individualistic and material but it is part of the larger goal of humanity to be in union with God. However, I am also reminded that while the goal exists in God alone, it is not right to simply ignore the things around me that are, in of itself, created and gifted to me by God, including nature and His people. As the Jesuits put it, “God in all things”.
Alas, I stop here in fear that I may never stop talking about this glorious piece of sacramental. However, though this article and the season of Easter may end, may this Exsultet, which began our Easters, be in our hearts as a reminder to continue to live Easter each and every day of our lives, with lips ready to praise God, hearts always inflamed with God’s love and lives seeking union with God and His people.
© 2017 Christ Centered Convo/Gregory Adrian Gunawan