Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Different Big Bang

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!

We do not need to struggle to imagine what the moment of Christ’s resurrection sounds like. Partly because no person besides Jesus witnessed its happening, it is difficult to picture what Easter looks like, though many artists have attempted to depict it. The soundtrack, however, is readily available: the Easter Proclamation.

Better known as the Exsultet, the first word in its Latin form, a single voice, often a deacon or priest, sings the Proclamation at the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter. The New Fire has been kindled and brought into the pitch-dark church as a single flame atop the Paschal Candle, the light of the Risen Christ piercing the darkness of the tomb. After this living flame has spread to the candles in the hands of the worshippers, the great candle is placed in its candelabrum in the sanctuary, then its praise is sung in the flickering glow.

The first time I heard the Exsultet was my freshman year in college. I was at the dinky parish church near our campus for my first Easter Vigil, trying to make it to the whole Triduum despite being in the midst of exams. The church had precious few resources, liturgical or otherwise, but that year one of the French professors sang the Exsultet, and beautifully.

Unfamiliar with the text and knowing little Latin, I was nonetheless unquestionably moved and even changed by the sung Proclamation. It communicates radical joy and transformation like no other work of human genius or art. Mozart thought so much of it that he went on record as believing that if he had composed only that, he would have no need to compose anything more.

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.

All the earth is affected. Not only is Christ transformed in glory by this event, but moreover all the world is changed in both its substance and experience. Death was universal, but for all mankind now it is something different. Not the absolute end, it now has been given the possibility of beginning something new and glorious.

Our birth would have been no gain

had we not been redeemed.

The Exsultet rejoices in the most basic truths of our salvation, reminding us that without salvation by Christ we would be born into a prison without hope of escaping: the prison of Sin, Original and Actual, inescapable and fatal. We can decorate it and make it comfortable, but for us and what power we have, there is no way out.

In what is perhaps its most famous assertion, it celebrates even Adam’s sin, which brought about our sad situation, but thus makes possible our joy.

O truly necessary sin of Adam,

destroyed completely by the death of Christ!

O happy fault,

that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

Easter answers the ever-recurring questions, How could God have allowed such a simple, solitary act as to expel all of us from His presence in Paradise? Is He so eager to punish? This puts a very fine point on the mystery in which we rejoice, which the Church often cites throughout the year: O God, who wondrously created human nature, and still more wonderfully redeemed it!

Lest we get lost in the cosmic significance of it all, it is clear that this great act of God our Father is deeply personal, both to Him, in what it cost, and to you and me, for whom He paid such a great price:

O wonder of your humble care for us!

O love, O charity beyond all telling,

to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Not surprisingly, the Easter Proclamation is yet another part of our liturgical patrimony whose promise is fulfilled in the much-improved translation of the new edition of the Missal. One tiny aspect that pleases many is that the bees are back. Yes, bees: remember, this is a hymn built around the mission and dedication of a great candle:

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father

accept this candle, a solemn offering

the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…

This is particularly welcome news around here at St. B’s, since the mascots of our school and all our athletic teams are the Bees.

Like the Resurrection itself, the Exsultet happens only once, and at night – each year in the Sacred Liturgy, at least. But thanks be to God and His holy Church for this single song of praise, which for a millennium and a half has let us know precisely what the Resurrection sounds like. Uncountable voices unite to proclaim what God has done for us, rocking the very foundations of the world, shaking this very church each Sunday.

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.

Amen! Alleluia! May this Divinely-given joy fill your homes and your lives throughout the year. Joined by Father DeRosa, Father McDonell, Father Nick, and all who work here at the heart of your parish to keep the song going, I wish you Blessed Easter!

Monsignor Smith