Paschal Candle, Paschal Vigil, Paschal Mystery

Each semester, when teaching the passion, death, and resurrection narratives of the Gospels to my students, I also teach the Paschal Mystery and assign the text of the Exsultet. The Exsultet is the prayer chanted by the priest or deacon at the Roman Catholic Paschal Vigil liturgy each year. I have my students read the Exsultet because song texts have been a helpful pedagogical tool in getting students to read deeply and slowly, chewing over the theological claims in the text. I also assign the Exsultet as a small introduction to Liturgical Theology in their larger Introduction to Theology course: particularly, the axiom that what Christians pray is also what Christians believe (or lex orandi, lex credendi). And so the Exsultet as both a song and a prayer serves as an ideal liturgical and theological text for students to read, to interpret, and on which they can practice “doing theology.” As a chanted prayer proclaiming the wonder of the Paschal Vigil—what happens on “this night”—and, therefore, the wonder of the Paschal Mystery—how humanity is saved by Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection—the Exsultet is an ideal text for demonstrating how Christian theology, practice, and prayer are always connected. For if we are going to understand Christian theology, as I point out to my students, we cannot read the Gospels’ passion, death, and resurrection narratives outside of their place in ancient Christian theology of the Paschal Mystery and the later practices of the Paschal Triduum. For the rest of us who hear the Exsultet chanted each Paschal Vigil, however, the Exsultet’s layers of symbolism can also help us to meditate on and wonder at the personal, communal, and cosmic implications of Jesus’s saving life, death, and resurrection.

The Exsultet is a prayer of offering and blessing, a song of praise and thanksgiving. The prayer is itself functions as a prayer of blessing and offering, asking God to accept and bless the candle for its service in the baptismal rite throughout the year. For anyone who has witnessed the Paschal Vigil liturgy, however, it is clear that the Exsultet is far more than just a prayer. It is a proclamation of the Paschal Mystery and a celebration of our participation in God’s work of salvation, culminating in Christ’s Incarnation, his self-giving death, and his glorious resurrection.

Before turning to the Exsultet’s other symbolic layers, I want to first consider how the Exsultet functions as sort of preview to the Paschal liturgy and, further, a communal meditation on salvation on and through “this night.” The Exsultet celebrates and reflects on, in a few breathless ritual moments, that which we celebrate and reflect on throughout Paschal Vigil liturgy: the long history of God’s merciful actions towards humanity, the climactic moment of Christ’s resurrection, the transformation of one night into the most important night in history, and the ritual means by which we, too, hundreds of years later, can enter into this wondrous mystery of salvation through baptism and the Eucharist “this night.”

In its ritual framework—the proclamation of the readings, in the baptismal rite, and the celebration of the Eucharist—the Paschal Vigil liturgy as a whole is our invitation to participate in the transformative events of “this night.” Yet the Paschal Vigil liturgy itself is also a sort of summary of the whole of the Triduum, the solemn Three Days of marking Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. For in the Paschal Vigil, like the Exsultet, we recount the totality of salvation history, Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection, and our hope for its completion on the last day. Like an image within an image, the Exsultet, as well as the Paschal Vigil Liturgy, and also the whole of the Triduum liturgies, these ritual elements both reveal the totality of the message of salvation and invite us into deeper participation.

Let us consider some of the symbolic layers of the performance of the Exsultet and how they invite listeners into the mystery of salvation. The Exsultet begins with a call that all—the hosts of heaven, the earth and all creation in it, and finally, we, the Church—rejoice at the wonders of this night. But why is this night, the Paschal Vigil, particularly wondrous? What happens on the Eve of Easter? While Good Friday recalls Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross and Easter Sunday morning relives the awe and excitement of the disciples who find the tomb empty and encounter the Risen Christ, the Paschal Vigil is the preeminent liturgy of the Paschal Mystery. In the Paschal Vigil, the Church celebrates what has already been done on our behalf, what is being done in this ritual moment—the resurrection of Jesus—and what we hope to experience on the last day—the resurrection of all the dead. All Christian liturgies celebrate the meeting of these three timelines in the ritual: we remember what God has done for us, we rejoice in participation in God’s ongoing salvation of the world, we await with hope the last day when God’s kingdom comes. The Paschal Vigil, however, reveals in a most palpable way this ritual meeting of timelines and this wondrous uniting of our own lives and the long history of salvation.

The Exsultet, through its theological imagery, leads our imaginations through the same meeting of God’s time and our time. The Exsultet recounts the origins of the rift between God and humanity, “the record of our ancient sinfulness,” and describes how, Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, “wiped clean” the primordial sin. It then turns our minds’ eye to the other most wondrous instance of God saving God’s people: Israel’s liberation from slavery and salvation at the Red Sea. Yet “this,” it continues, “is the night, that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart” from the slavery of sin and leads them instead to a life lived in God’s grace. The saving acts of the past are recalled here tonight because here, in our midst, God’s saving work continues through the Paschal Mystery: Christ’s death was his victory over death, Christ’s descent into hell freed those faithful who awaited eternal life with God, Christ’s resurrection brought God’s life everlasting into the human realm. What a wondrous, merciful love: Christ’s self-gift in the Incarnation and at his passion and death. What astonishing divine love: to seek to be with us, let alone to save us. What incomprehensible logic of love, to offer forgiveness again and again. A love that is so precious that it causes us to celebrate that “happy fault,” felix culpa, that sin of Adam that, in its despairing depth, necessitated a Redeemer so glorious. Truly this night is blessed, the Exsultet reminds us, this shining moment suspended in time, that changed forever all of history. This night shines forward and backward through the centuries, bringing light into even the darkest moments of human time. And this night serves as a beacon each year, a guiding light for us who participate in that one night, nearly two thousand years ago, and who participate in this particular night. Because we also celebrate tonight the means by which we enter into Christ’s work tonight, the instrument of our communal salvation: baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Exsultet closes with its ultimate ritual function: a blessing and offering prayer over the Paschal Candle. The Paschal Candle, shining at each celebration of baptism during the year, links in our minds this night’s ritual weight and theological meaning for baptism. Each Paschal Candle blessed at a community’s Paschal Vigil celebration become a symbolic means for baptisms throughout the year to participate in the work of this night. Paul’s Romans 6 baptismal theology—“are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in the newness of life”—is echoed this night and at all baptisms with this Paschal Candle. Because, like this night, which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners, drives our hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty,” so too does baptism makes manifest the Kingdom of God in the here and the now and the reality of our lives. In the Paschal Vigil liturgy as we watch the candidates for baptism undergo the ritual in front of us, we see Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection at work before our very eyes. As we renew our baptismal promises and are sprinkled with the holy water blessed by the Paschal Candle, we recall our own saving baptisms.

As the prayer continues, the meeting of our world and God’s work continues: in the Exsultet we ask that God accept and bless the Paschal Candle, a product of cooperation between two of God’s own creatures, bees and humanity. Indeed, the bees and all of creation participate in God’s work of salvation, symbolized by the light produced by the burning wax of the Paschal Candle, so that heavenly and earthly things mingle in this candle, this night, this saving work. The Paschal Candle, then, becomes our memory of the wonders of this night and a sign of our hope of entering into God’s innermost life of love. It becomes an image of God the Father of Israel as the pillar of fire in the desert of Exodus, an image of Christ as the Light of the World, an image of the Holy Spirit in the tongues of fire at Pentecost, and an image of our own illumination through baptism.

The Exsultet closes with our shared eschatological hope. We recall that the power of what occurred on this night nearly two thousand years ago is still as potent today, that the effects of Christ’s glorious transformation can still be felt by us now, and that it is a beacon for our hope that the whole world, and indeed we, too, will be gloriously transformed, body and soul, when he comes again. The Exsultet reminds us that we look forward with hope to the return of Christ, our Light, on the last day, and pray that he may find the flame of our Paschal Candle and the fire of our baptismal faith burning bright. The prayer then leads us into the Paschal Vigil’s liturgies of the Word, of Baptism, and of the Eucharist, all of which serve to make Christ known to us and make us one with him.

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