This triumphant hymn and wonderful sacramental is the prelude to the Easter solemnities. It is a majestic proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ, a dramatic invitation to heaven and earth to join with the Church in joy and jubilation. It is the rite of sanctification of light and night, of place and time, of priest and faithful for the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. In itself, it is a symbolic representation of the Resurrection of Christ, a sacramental, preparing for and anticipating the reenactment of the Resurrection in the eucharistic Sacrifice. This Easter-sacramental is a jewel of the liturgy, brilliant in content and composition, in its symbolism and efficacy. The hymn is filled with profound theology, radiant with youthful enthusiasm, flowing in the most solemn rhythms of the psalms, resounding in the most jubilant cadences of Gregorian chant. This sacramental, based on the ritual of the Old Testament and containing as it does venerable relics of apostolic tradition, reflects and transmits to us an echo of the glorified joy of early Christianity.
Origin And Historical Development
The ritual lamp lit in the Synagogue at the close of the Sabbath and the evening sacrifice of light and incense ordained by God to be offered in the Temple, these are the rites of the Old Testament which constitute the origin of the Christian Lucernarium, or the service of "lighting of lamps."
And thou shalt command the children of Israel that they bring thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the testimony without the veil, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord (Ex. 27:20-21) .... And thou shalt put it (the altar of incense) before the veil .... And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamp, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even he shall burn incense upon it(Ex. 30:6-8).
The first Christians regarded the evening sacrifice of the Temple as a prophetic type of the Sacrifice of our Lord, who expired at the exact hour of its offering. They found this interpretation confirmed in Ps. 140:2: "Let my prayer be set before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." Now the nucleus of the earliest Christian liturgy was the evening reunion or "synaxis." This vigil rite was so arranged that the eucharistic Sacrifice with which it concluded coincided with the hour of the Savior's Resurrection. The vigil from Saturday to Sunday in particular was celebrated in commemoration of the Resurrection, and above all this was the case with the Easter vigil. The solemn vigil of Easter, the first in origin and dignity, was obligatory for all the faithful from the very beginning, not only as the anniversary of the Resurrection, but also because the Parousia of Christ was expected to take place on the night of the Resurrection. Based as it was on these traditions, the lighting of the vigil lights was from its very beginning considered as a sacred function, as a heritage and continuation of the Old Testament rite of the evening sacrifice of light. This lighting of the lights, especially for the Saturday vigil and for the most solemn vigil of Easter, was then interpreted by the first Christians explicitly as a symbol of the Resurrection.
There is, perhaps, an implicit reference to the Lucernarium in the statement in the Acts of the Apostles (20:8) that the room was brilliantly lighted with a great number of lamps on the occasion of the sermon of St. Paul: "And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together." Beginning with the Canons of Hippolytus and the Apostolic Constitutions, a continuous chain of patristic and liturgical tradition testifies to the existence, significance and importance of the Lucernarium, or Eucharistia Lucernaris as it was also called. The Apostolic Constitutions 8, 35 mention the Lucernarium as marking the beginning of the solemn Saturday vigil, and speak of Psalm 140, said regularly at these vigils, as the "Psalmus Lucernalis." A colorful description of the rite of the Lucernarium in Jerusalem is contained in the famous pilgrimage account of Etheria (about 385?). In the presence of the clergy, of the monks and of all the people, a light which had been kept burning in the holy Sepulchre was brought forth and from it were lighted the lamps which hung from the ceiling of the basilica in great number—"fit lumen infinitum." Prudentius (348-405) speaks likewise not of a single candle, but of a great number of lamps hung from the vaulting of the church, so that it compared to the vault of heaven in which shines so great a multitude of stars.
From this Lucernarium there developed two distinct rites: the daily Vespers, and the solemn Easter Lucernarium, or the Benedictio Cerei (the blessing of the candle). In the Byzantine Vespers the ancient tradition of the Lucernarium is still kept alive through the use of Psalm 140 as one of the regular Vesper psalms, and by means of the famous hymn "Phos hilaron" to the evening lamp:
Hail, gladdening light, of His pure glory poured
Who is immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of holies, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Now we have come to the sun's hour rest,
The lights of evening round us shine,
We hymn the Father, Son and Holy Ghost divine.
Worthiest art Thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of God, giver of life alone!
Therefore in all the world Thy glories, Lord, Thy own.
The Roman Church eliminated the rite of the regular Lucernarium about the end of the third century. In the Churches outside Rome it was continued, and developed into several variants. The Lucernarium on Holy Saturday in particular was celebrated with great solemnity. The light which had to be kindled for the reading from the ambo was singled out for this special ceremony. The special prayers for the blessing of this candle were called "Laus Cerei," or "Praise of the Candle." Since it was the deacon's office to kindle this light, he also was given the privilege of performing the blessing. The Laus Cerei is mentioned by St. Jerome about the year 378. Presidius, a deacon of Piacenza, had asked the Saint to compose such a text of blessing for him, but Jerome considered it an abuse that mere deacons should perform the Laus Cerei, while bishops and priests bad to remain silent.
Rome re-introduced the rite of the Lucernarium about the middle of the seventh century in the form of the Holy Saturday "Benedictio Cerei." Although the Liber Pontificalis credits Pope Zosimus (about 417) with the introduction of this blessing of the candle at Rome, it is more probable that, as his biographer claims, Pope Theodore (642-649) deserves this honor. The present rites of the blessing of the fire, of the procession and its "Lumen Christi," and of the blessing of the Easter candle, present a fusion of three variants of the original Lucernarium as they had been developed by the different Churches. The Laus Cerei as found in the Roman Missal was perhaps composed in the fifth century, certainly not later than the seventh. Parts of it go back to the fourth century. Language, rhythm, and ideas show the influence of St. Paul. It was formerly ascribed to St. Augustine.1
Two liturgical forms are combined in the structure of the Exsultet: gospel and anaphora (canon). The Exsultet is the proclamation of the beginning of Easter and the invitation to celebrate the Paschal mysteries; therefore, it is in the form of a gospel. It is the blessing and oblation of light, a sacrificial rite; therefore, in the form of an anaphora.
As gospel it is introduced by the same blessing which the celebrant gives to the deacon before the chanting of the gospel of the Mass. The term "Paschale praeconium" (Paschal praise), used in this blessing, indicates the nature of the Exsultet as the great song acclaiming the risen Christ. The rubrics ordain that the faithful stand as for the gospel ("Surgentibus omnibus, et stantibus, ut fit ad Evangelium"). The deacon is clad in a white dalmatic representing the angel at the tomb who announced the glad tidings, "He is risen, as he said," and of whom St. Matthew remarks, "His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow" (Matt. 28:3). The Exsultet is further introduced with words alluding to the message of the angel in Bethlehem, and to the Easter message of the angel at the tomb, and also to the proclamation of the seventh angel of the Apocalypse. The message to the shepherds began with the words: "Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10); the angel at the tomb said: "Do not be afraid" (Matt. 28:5). In like manner the herald of the Paschale Praeconium begins with an exhortation to joy, whence the name Exsultet. The announcement with the trumpet by the seventh angel of the Apocalypse, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ" (Apoc. 11:15), is alluded to in the Exsultet with the words: "Let the trumpet of salvation proclaim the victory of so great a king."
Of important influence upon text and structure, moreover, was the proclamation (Haggadah) of the Paschal Supper of the Jews, contained in the great Hallel (Pss. 112-117), recited by our Lord and the disciples at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30). The invitation to joy of the Exsultet is worded after Psalm 117, the last of the Hallel psalms. Verse 24b of this Psalm, "This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad, in it," is distinctly echoed in the words "Exsultet . . . Gaudeat . . . Laetetur" (synonyms for "rejoice") as well as in the seven-fold solemn declaration, "This is the night ...." Further, as in the ritual proclamation of the Passover the benefactions of God at the Exodus were sung — types of the redemption by Christ — so likewise in the Praeconium three of these events are proclaimed and compared with the antitype. (Note: The parallelism in structure between the Praeconium and the Reproaches of Good Friday is intended by the composers. The Praeconium, the more ancient composition, has influenced) the structure of the Reproaches.)
Inasmuch as it is an important sacramental and a symbolic sacrificial rite, the Exsultet is composed, secondly, in the most solemn liturgical form of an anaphora, or "canon." For this reason it was also given the name "Eucharistia Lucernaris," a variant of the more ancient term "Lucernarium." Name and analysis of this Eucharistia Lucernaris show that it has preserved the structure and ideas of an anaphora previous to the present Roman Canon. Our interpretation of it can follow the clearly distinguishable parts: Orate Fratres, preface, preconsecratory invocation, oblation, anamnesis, postconsecratory invocation, great intercession, doxology.
"Fratres . . . Invocate" (Orate Fratres)
In the "Orate Fratres" at Mass the offering priest requests the prayer of the congregation that God may (by consecration) accept the sacrifice. In the present case the deacon requests the prayer of the congregated brethren, "fratres . . . invocate," that God may "by the infusion of His light" enable him to celebrate the praise of this light, "cerei laudem." But not only the congregation is addressed. An invitation is extended also to the angels, to the "divine Mysteries," to the earth, and to the Church, to join in joy and jubilation: "Exsultet jam" — let them rejoice now, because it is the time to rejoice, the night and the hour of the anniversary of the Resurrection, of its reenactment. In the invitation to "the heavenly hosts of angels" we hear an allusion to St. Luke 2:13: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God." Exsaltent divina mysteria — Let the divine Mysteries rejoice," refers without doubt to the eucharistic celebration, which, as the deacon in the first Christian centuries used to announce at the moment of consecration, is the "Mystery of faith — Mysterium fidei." The "divine Mysteries shall rejoice," i.e., they shall joyfully be celebrated, renewing the glory and joy of the first Easter.
"The trumpet of salvation shall resound" has reference to an Old Testament type of the Exsultet. On the parasceve namely, at the hour of the evening sacrifice, a sign was given with a trumpet from the pinnacle of the Temple for the beginning of the slaughter of the paschal lamb. And divine Providence ordained that this same trumpet should proclaim simultaneously the consummation of the evening sacrifice upon the Cross. The "trumpet of salvation" refers likewise to the trumpet of the seventh angel in the Apocalypse who is to proclaim the completion of the kingdom of Christ. This reference to the final judgment and to the time when Christ "shall reign forever and ever" (Apoc. 11:15) is evident from the epithets given to Christ in this passage: "so great a King . . . the eternal King." Thus an eschatological connotation is added: the Old Testament type points to its antitype in the New Testament, and both refer to their common antitype in the heavenly liturgy. The radiance and lightnings and splendor of brightness about which the earth is rejoicing associate the light of the Lucernarium with the scene of the Resurrection where the angel's "countenance was like lightning" (Matt. 28:3), as also with the radiant manifestation of the risen Savior. The terms recall moreover — again an eschatological orientation — the luminous cloud and the lightnings of the second coming. Finally the Church rejoices over the illumination by the Easter candle as a symbol of her own supernatural illumination by the risen Christ.
It is this part of the Exsultet which primarily justifies its name of "Paschale Praeconium," i.e., Paschal Praise; for here we have the solemn proclamation of praise for Christ's glorious Sacrifice, for the glory of His Resurrection, for the Pasch in type and antitype.
The theme of this Paean of Praise is proposed in Pauline terminology (cf. Col. 2:14: "He cancelled the decree against us"). We are called upon to sing the praises of the invisible God the almighty Father, and of our Lord Jesus Christ who by His work of Redemption has paid to the eternal Father Adam's debt. This Work of Redemption (opus redemptionis) is proclaimed in its aspects of type and antitype, with emphasis on the mystery of Resurrection; it is portrayed in its cause and effect, in its ultimate and proximate motive. Both cause and effect are declared by means of seven propositions — corresponding to the seven lamps of the golden candlestick of the Temple with the seven lights of the evening sacrifice, corresponding in turn to the seven candles which were lit from the Easter candle itself (we find this rite described in Ordo Romanus I, eighth century). The Work of Redemption is announced in the present tense: "This is the festival of the Pasch . . . in which that true Lamb is slain," etc., which indicates that it is in full truth being re-presented, renewed, re-enacted on Easter.
The first three proclamations refer to three types of the night of Resurrection (implying in each case their realization in the latter): the night of the Egyptian Pasch, the night of the passage through the Red Sea, and the night of the journey through the desert, which was illuminated by the pillar of fire, symbolically represented by the Easter candle. The remaining four proclamations refer exclusively to the antitype. The first (or fourth, in the list of seven) proposes the redemptive work as a whole, as the physical and spiritual, supernatural illumination of the universe by Christ. The second (or fifth of the seven) forms the climax in this part of the Song: "This is the night in which, having burst through the bonds of death, Christ cloth rise victorious from hell." That special emphasis is to be attached to this declaration appears from the fact that to it are added a series of exclamatory phrases, clothed in vocabulary and ideas from St. Paul, about the motives of the Redemption (cf. Rom. 8:32; 11:33; I Tim. 3:16). The ultimate motive is expressed in the words: "O wonderful condescension of mercy! O incomparable predilection of love!"2 "O truly necessary sin of Adam .... O happy fault ..." suggest the proximate motive.
After the parenthetical listing of the motives of Redemption the two final declarations about the night of Resurrection are added. Number six speaks of the time and hour of the Resurrection, with an allusion to the second coming of Christ as described in Matt. 24:36 and Mark 13:32. The seventh recalls a prophecy about the glorious night of Resurrection (an accommodation of Ps. 138:11-12): "The night shall be enlightened as the day, the night is light to me in my joy."
Immediately following the seven proclamations concerning the night of Resurrection and concerning the cause and. motives of Redemption, seven effects of the supernatural illumination by the risen Christ, symbolized by the light of the candle, are brief), enumerated: the holiness of this night 1) banishes crime, 2) washes away sin, 3) restores innocence to those who have fallen, 4) gives gladness to those who are sad, 5) drives forth hate, 6) brings peace, and 7) humbles the haughty. So far the Preface.
The actual blessing of the candle begins with the insertion of five grains of blessed incense in the form of a cross, symbolizing the five wounds in the body of Christ, and the following invocation. This invocation is directed to the heavenly Father and asks for acceptance of "the evening sacrifice of this incense." The words "evening sacrifice," borrowed from the "sacrificium vespertinum" of Ps. 140, obviously link up the Temple evening sacrifice with this Christian Lucernarium. (It should be noted, that the words incensi huius" originally did not refer to the grains of incense, but to the oblation of the lighted candle itself. Even in the present context they do not mean exclusively the grains of incense.) After the invocation for acceptance there follows the central act of oblation: the lighting of the candle. To the accompaniment of a poetic passage (containing probably a quotation from Virgil) about the "mother bee," a symbol of the virginal birth of the Redeemer, the altar candles are then lit from the Easter candle.
The remembrance prayer of our Eucharistia Lucernaris, which corresponds to the "Unde et memores" of the Roman Canon, commemorates once more the type and antitype of this glorious Easter night: now, celebrated in symbol, it is being anticipated in a sacramental; very soon it will be re-enacted in Sacrament. The double aspect and effect of the miraculous cloud of the Old Testament — darkness and destruction for the Egyptians, light and salvation for the Hebrews — is interpreted in this anamnesis as symbolical of the re-union of body and soul by Resurrection, and of the glorification of the humanity by the divine Word: "The night in which things of heaven are joined to those of earth, things of God to those of man!"
The postconsecratory invocation prays for conservation of the Easter light "that it may not fail to scatter the darkness of this night," and for the acceptance of this sacrifice of light by God "as a sweet savor, that it be mingled with the lights of heaven." This last phrase recalls the words of the Canon in the Supplices prayer: 'Command these to be carried . . . to Thine altar on high," and contains an allusion to the Apocalypse text about the illumination of the heavenly temple and of the city of God by the Lamb (Apoc 21:23). The invocation concludes with beautiful words of sublime symbolism. The light of the Easter candle is compared to the brilliant morning-star Christ, rising in the eucharistic celebration: sacramental and Sacrament, sacred symbol and sacred object symbolized are linked up with the natural symbol of the rising of the "morning-star," or the rising sun. The order of nature as symbol of the order of grace, the Old Testament rites as types of the New Testament, the liturgy on earth and the liturgy of heaven, all these am continually interwoven throughout the entire composition: "May the morning-star find its flame alight — that morning-star which knows no setting" (cf. Luke 10:8).
In the Eucharistia Lucernaris, as in the Antiochene Liturgy, the great intercession follows the postconsecratory invocation. (There was only one intercessory prayer in the ancient anaphora: the division into a preconsecratory and postconsecratory invocation was introduced into the Roman rite sometime between the fifth and the end of the sixth century.) The prayer is offered for the celebrant and the assistants, for the entire clergy, for all the faithful in union with pope and bishop. It begs for quiet and peace during Eastertime, for divine protection and guidance. (At the time of the Holy Roman Empire, a special petition for emperor and empire was added, asking for peace and heavenly victory for ruler and people.)
Efficacy And Effects
The Exsultet is a most solemn sacramental. As symbol of the eucharistic Sacrifice, it too, analogously to the Eucharist, is "unto the glory of God and the sanctification of the Church — ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram totiusque ecclesiae suae sanctae." Its supernatural and temporal effects upon the faithful are produced "ex opere operantis Ecclesiae," through the power of the Church's prayer. Since the effect of a sacramental is dependent upon the intention of the Church as expressed in the solemnity of the rite and in the terms of the prayers, the Exsultet is without doubt a very great sacramental, productive of an abundance of spiritual and temporal graces. It is a sacramental preparation and a disposing for a happy celebration of Easter, which is to climax in the Easter Eucharist, the resurrection of the souls — with Christ. "The sacraments of the New Law, though they take effect ex opere operato, nevertheless produce a "mater effect in proportion as the dispositions of the recipient are better; therefore, care is to be taken that holy Communion be preceded by serious preparation, and followed by a suitable thanksgiving (Pius X, Decree on Daily Communion, Dec. 20, 1905).
The actual graces produced by the Exsultet are acts of faith in the Resurrection of Christ, and in its re-enactment in the Easter celebration, proclaimed and described in such fervent, glowing colors; acts, moreover, of expectant hope, of reverence and admiration for the Easter mysteries; acts of gratitude for the charity and mercy of God, for so great a Sacrifice, for so great a glory merited for us by the Redeemer (cf. John 17).
The light of the Easter candle "blots out crime, washes away sins, restores innocence," by forgiving venial sins and temporal punishment for sins. It "banishes enmities, produces concord, gives joy to the sorrowful." The prayer for "humbling the haughty" (literally: bring low the power of empires) refers not merely to the haughtiness of civil authorities, but also and primarily to the empire of death, the reign of the prince of this world and his hosts.
The Exsultet has also an abundance of temporal effects, partly implied already in the seven effects enumerated, partly suggested in the great intercession, e.g. a quiet and peaceful Eastertime, free from disturbances of all kind, so that Christians may in complete tranquillity enjoy the holy season. When the Church asks God in so solemn a manner on behalf of the faithful that He may "ever rule and guide and keep them" in His "devoted protection," then this special protection of their ways and lives, of their health and happiness is assured. The Exsultet is both wish and prayer, congratulation and impetration of a blessed, glorious, joyful, jubilant Easter.
Fratres . . . Invocate (Orate Fratres)
Let the angelic choirs of heaven now rejoice; let the divine Mysteries rejoice; and let the trumpet of salvation sound for the victory of so great a King.
Let the earth also rejoice, made radiant by such splendor; and, enlightened with the brightness of the eternal King, let it know that the whole world's darkness is scattered.
Let mother Church, too, rejoice, adorned with the brightness of so great a light; and may this temple resound with the loud voices of the people.
Wherefore, I beseech you, most dear brethren, who are here present in the wonderful brightness of this holy light, to invoke with me the mercy of almighty God. That He who has vouchsafed to number me among His levites without any merit of mine would pour forth His brightness to perfect the praise of this light. Through Jesus, our Lord ....
It is truly meet and right to proclaim with all affection of heart and mind and by the service of our voice the God invisible, the Father everlasting, and His only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who for us repaid to His eternal Father the debt of Adam, and by the pitiful shedding of His blood cancelled our ancient bond of sin.
(1) For this is the festival of the Pasch, in which is slain that true Lamb by whose blood the doorposts of the faithful are hallowed.
(2) This is the night in which Thou didst first bring out of Egypt our fathers, the children of Israel, and lead them dry-foot through the Red Sea.
(3) This, then, is the night which cleansed the darkness of sin by the light of the pillar.
(4) This is the night which at this season throughout the whole world restores to grace and yokes to holiness those that believe in Christ, detaching them from worldly vice and the foulness of sin.
(5) This is the night in which Christ, having burst the bonds of death, cloth rise victorious from hell. For it would have been no boon to be born had we not the boon of being redeemed.
How wonderful the condescension of Thy mercy towards us! How incomparable the predilection of Thy love! That Thou mightest ransom Thy slave, Thou gayest up Thine own Son!
Oh, truly necessary was Adam's sin, that was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault, that was worthy of such and so great a Redeemer!
(6) Oh, how blessed is this night, which alone was worthy to know the season and hour in which Christ rose again from hell!
(7) This is the night of which it is written: "And the night shall be enlightened as the day: and the night is light for my joy."
Therefore does the holiness of this night banish crime, wash away sin, restore innocence to those who have fallen and give gladness to those who are sad, drive forth hate, bring peace, and humble haughtiness.
(The deacon fixes the five grains of blessed incense in the candle in the form of a cross, and proceeds):
In the grace of this night, then, O Father, receive for an evening sacrifice this burning light, which holy Church renders unto Thee at the hand of her ministers in the solemn offering of this candle of wax, wrought by bees. Now we know the glory of this column which God's bright flame kindles.
The Act Of Oblation:
(The deacon lights the candle.)
Though divided into parts, yet it suffers no loss from the light which it imparts. For it is fed from the melted wax which the mother bee wrought for the substance of this precious lamp.
(The candles on the altar and the lamps of the church are now lighted.)
O truly blessed is the night which despoiled the Egyptians and enriches the Hebrews! The night in which things of heaven are joined to those of earth, things of God to those of man!
We therefore pray Thee, O Lord, that this candle, which is hallowed in honor of Thy name; may avail and fail not to scatter the darkness of this night. May it be received as a sweet: savor and be mingled with the lights of heaven. May the morning-star find its flame alight: that morning-star which knows no setting, which came back from hell and shed its benevolent light upon mankind.
We therefore beseech Thee, O Lord, grant a season of peace at this time of Easter, grant gladness to us Thy servants, and to all the clergy, to Thy devout people, and especially to our most blessed Pope Pius and to our Bishop; deign ever to rule and guide and keep them under Thy devoted protection ....
Through the same Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son, who with Thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth one God; for ever and ever.
1. Cf. Dom Gueranger. The Liturgical Year. Holy Week (1897) pp. 558-566; Cardinal Schuster, The Sacramentary, Vol. II (London. 1925), pp. 243-255, 290-295.
2. "O mira pietatis dignatio! O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis!" One of the reasons why St. Augustine has been credited with the authorship of the Exultet is because of his parallel exclamation (In Joan.. tr. 26. n. 13) :"O sacramentum pietatis! O signum unitatis! O vinculum caritatis!" — coupled with an implicit quotation from I Tim. 3:16.
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