Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An End to Gloom and Darkness: Recovering the true meaning of the Exsultet

Tonight, I get to rehearse the Exsultet. (Big smile.)

As a cantor for the past 25 years, I have been privileged to take part in the great opening chant of the Saturday night Easter Vigil, the  Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, sometimes as a choir member, sometimes as one of those who chant the verses of whatever arrangement that parish used. In the semi-darkness of a church lit only by the new Easter Candle and the pinpoints of light from the small candles held by each member of the assembly, this has always been my favorite moment of the entire liturgical year.

My first exposure to the Exsultet was in the late 80's through the much-beloved Everett Frese arrangement from OCP, now out of print, which began with a pedal point on the organ's lowest pipe that rumbled and shook the dark room as the light of the Easter Candle was shared with the people's candles. It then moved, after the candle was set in its socket, into a glorious and dramatic chant for two cantors punctuated by choir and assembly. The mystery and majesty of the Exsultet in the years I spent in the parish where we used that setting is still something that lives on in my memory. In later years, I encountered the unembellished chant version sung by either cantor or deacon right out of the Sacramentary. Not as dramatic, to be sure, but still wonderful.

During the past few years my current parish has begun using a bilingual version by Pedro Rubalcava,  also from OCP, with our pastor chanting the Spanish verses and me taking the English ones. The challenge, of course, when we go back and forth, is that the people 'lose" half of the text on both sides of the language "divide." Ideally, I suppose, we should do the whole thing in both languages, as we do the Easter Gospel, but length pretty much prevents that. Still, this represents an attempt to honor both cultures, and the text can be read in the missalette . It is the proclamation itself that is the point - and the soaring refrain for the people emphasizes the importance of the moment: "This is the night, this is the night, this is the night! Esta es la noche, esta es la noche, esta es la noche!" 

As we begin to use the new Roman Missal translation, however, I am conscious that we in the English speaking world had been "robbed" for 40 years of part of the meaning and purpose of the Exsultet. It is not, as it formerly appeared, only a proclamation of the Resurrection, so much as it is a hymn of praise to the Light of Christ and the candle that bears it.

Contrast the old opening to the current section in the new Roman Missal and you see the difference.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!  Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ, our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
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! 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.
(You can see a side-by-side comparison of the full texts, along with the Latin original here.)

Notice that the opening of the new version does not use the words "Jesus Christ... has risen" specifically, but merely references his "triumph." And throughout, the emphasis is now on the Easter Candle itself, the work of the bees (always present in the Spanish translation). This entire section was left out of the former translation, leaving us with an imperfect understanding of the true purpose of the chant:
Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.
Much has been made, among liturgical experts, of the "return of the bees." In this key passage, we see the definition of the Easter Candle (and our divided flames on the assembly's candles) as our earthly offering of praise to God the Father, joined to the glory of the light of Christ. This understanding makes even clearer the opening blessing of the candle, during which grains of incense are embedded along with the description of Christ as Alpha and Omega.
As we begin the procession into the church, the presider says: "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds."  Now,  with the meaning of the Exsultet restored,  that makes more sense. It is the risen light which is emphasized here - and by implication, the person of Christ. The chant that follows is in praise of that light.

So yes, the Exsultet is a great paean to the Risen Christ, but in the form of the return of his light, out of the darkness of the grave - not so much directly to his person. It is our offering of the Easter Candle to the Father, returning the work of the bees to its author and Creator, symbolizing that the Resurrection takes place among us each year at the lighting of the new fire.

And now we know.

No comments:

Post a Comment