The quintessential chant of the Paschal Triduum is, without a doubt, the great hymn of exultant praise, the Exsultet or, more properly, the Praeconium Paschale, that is sung at the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter. Liturgical scholars date this ancient hymn in praise of the Risen Lord to as early as the 5th century. The ancient Sacramentaries of the Church, or books containing the liturgical texts for the Mass, give witness to its universal presence in the Vigil liturgy by the 7th century.
This melismatic (elaborate) chant is most properly sung by the deacon of the liturgy. If a deacon is not present, or his musical skill may not be up to the task of singing this challenging piece of music, it may be sung by a priest or even a layperson – so important is its sung form in the Vigil liturgy. It would be absolutely abhorrent for it to ever be recited!
In 1973 as a Deacon, I first chanted the Exsultet when I was assigned as a weekend Deacon in my 4th year at St. John’s Seminary to St. Margaret Mary parish in Lomita. The pastor had a deep appreciation for Church music and chant and asked me if I wouldn’t mind chanting this ancient text in its original Latin form. I gladly obliged. It was an unforgettable experience that has remained with me as a grateful memory these 45 years. In the course of my active ministry, I was blessed to chant this Easter praise for nearly every year of my priesthood, until my singing voice ‘gave up its ghost’ several years ago!
There is an ancient maxim in our liturgical lexicon that I have made reference to in previous posts, that is, the law of prayer shapes what it is we believe – (Lex orandi statuit legem credendi). And so, for the faithful Christian, the true meaning of Easter – what it is we believe about the Resurrection of Christ – is encapsulated in the text of this marvelous and stunning chant.
While the present English version of this chant that was incorporated into the revised, 2011, translation of the Roman Missal, is one of the more successful efforts at what is generally a literal and less than poetic translation of the original Latin text, the following, is the ICEL translation from the Missal that was completed in 1998 but, sadly, never saw the light of day. In my humble opinion, it captures the vibrancy and depth of meaning of this ancient proclamation of Easter Praise.
For those who might be fascinated by this topic, I present two video renditions of the Latin chant. The first, seen at the beginning of this post, is a beautiful, rather straight forward rendition that was done at the Papal Easter Vigil some years ago. The Deacon chants it with precision and in the traditional fashion. The second, that concludes this post, was done at the Abbey of Fontfroide in France. It is done by a priest who chants it with an emotion and intensity (with some emotional chant liberties! – I think he’s a Spaniard!) that befits the beauty and meaning of the text.
Here follows the ICEL 1998 translation:
Exult and sing, O heav’nly choirs of angels! Rejoice, all you powers in heaven and on earth! Jesus Christ our King is risen!Sound the trumpet, sing of our salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your king! Lands that once lay covered by darkness, see Christ’s glory filling all the universe!
Rejoice, O mother Church, with all your children, resplendent in your risen Saviour’s light!Let our joyful voices resound this night!Let God’s people shake these walls with shouts of praise!
A deacon says:
Rejoice, beloved friends and heirs with Christ, standing with me in this wondrous light!Pray that God grant to me, a deacon of the Church, strength to sing this Easter candle’s praises.
A priest or cantor says:
Rejoice, beloved friends and heirs with Christ, standing with me in this wondrous light! Join me in seeking from God’s Holy Spirit grace to sing this Easter proclamation.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give thanks and praise.
It is truly right and justthat with full hearts and minds and voices,we should praise you, unseen God, almighty Father, and your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
For Christ ransomed us with his precious bloodand, by nailing to the cross the decree that condemned us, he paid to you, eternal Father, the price of Adam’s sin.
This is our passover feast,when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the nightwhen first you set the children of Israel free: you saved our ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when you led your people by a pillar of fire: with your light you showed them the way and destroyed all the darkness of sin.
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and in triumphant glory rose from the grave.
What good would life have been for us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
O God, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave up a Son!
O necessary sin of Adam, destroyed by the death of Christ! O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer! O night truly blest! O night chosen above all others to see Christ rise in glory from the dead!
This is the night of which the Scripture says: ”Even darkness is not dark for you, and the night will shine as clear as the day!”
How holy is this night, which heals our wounds and washes all evil away!
A night to restore lost innocence and bring mourners joy! A night to cast out hatred! A night for seeking peace and humbling pride!
O truly blessed night when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled with God!
Therefore, Father most holy, in the joy of this night, receive our evening sacrifice of praise, the solemn offering of your holy people.
Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning. Christ is that Morning Star, who rose to shed his peaceful light on all creation and lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. AMEN.