“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven…”
Few experiences in life compare with those precious moments of genuinely real and powerful transcendence. The man-made earthquake of the liftoff of the Space Shuttle from the Cape Canaveral launch pad as Mission Control counts down to zero and bids the astronauts a safe journey, a fond farewell and Godspeed. The thundering of the tightly-packed herd of thoroughbreds making their way at breakneck speed as they approach the final straightaway at the Kentucky Derby and the announcer intones the classic phrase, “Down the Clubhouse turn they come!” The roar of the motors screaming at the Indy 500 after the words “Start your engines!” To witness first-hand the sheer fury and raw explosiveness of any given moment of such rarity and exceptional beauty, redolent in its own magnanimity that is far beyond words, is to be truly transformed through it, and to be changed forever by it.
One of those unique moments in our Catholic faith is the singing of the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. To enter fully into it is to immerse ourselves in the very heart of the Paschal Mystery. A complex and ancient hymn, the Exsultet, following the lighting of the Easter fire and the solemn procession of the Easter Candle into the Church, is traditionally sung by one man, a deacon, after making three processional stops from the back of the darkened or dimly-lit Church to the front. Along the way, the faithful light their own small tapers from the one flame atop the Easter Candle, representative of the Light of Christ spreading from the resurrected Jesus to each one of us. Soon his voice will fill the Church and all who hear it will be invited to be transformed.
“Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King…
let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples…”
To submerge ourselves in this moment of pure, holy transcendence is to experience the last few waning seconds of the Lenten season and bid it a fond farewell. Much like it began on Ash Wednesday, its passing away in quiet solemnity in the midst of a dark, ethereal, purple fog is a conversion into something new, as if something incredibly inexplicable, yet joyful, begins to gain momentum and spread in the silence. One by one, tiny flames pierce the darkness like so many stars in a distant, black night sky. The fragrance of the lilies barely discernible on the altar is now somewhat visibly associated with their forms in the weak, ambient twilight. More and more lights begin to dot the interior of the Church until each individual light joins in its struggle to glow with the others, collectively producing a building, growing, brighter light battling with and gradually overcoming the darkness. Yes, something new and important is happening here. This is the hour commemorating Christ’s victory over death, and we have the opportunity to participate fully in it. It is His hour. It is our hour. The violet darkness of Lent gives way to the white light of Easter.
“This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.”
And then comes the time when that Light of Christ is praised. The deacon (or priest or cantor) draws a pensive breath and shatters the darkness with an a capella prayer of praise and thanksgiving, singing a hymn to the Light that overcame the darkness of the tomb which the builders rejected, the unlighted grave where failure and death became, at once, victory and light. The burial chamber of an executed criminal of the state was forever changed into a sacred place that held within it the promise of eternal life for us all. We enter into and recall the moment when the sleepy Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb were violently awakened with a thunderous, tumultuous cacophony of theophany, and a blinding, brilliant light outshining the sun in all its radiance as Christ fulfilled his promise and was raised from the dead, never to die again. We are made present there, outside the city walls of Jerusalem, very near to Calvary, at that early, unknown hour when our destinies became fused together.
“This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.”
Nothing else compares to this, the greatest climax to the plot of the greatest story ever told. It is the Event of all events of human history, surpassing in importance and fulfilling in purposeful completeness the moment the Eternal Word became Flesh at the Annunciation. The moment when Mary’s fiat foreshadowed Christ’s willingness to become sin for our sake, to sacrifice Himself in our place, to reconcile us to the Eternal Father through an ignominious and torturous death in which he emptied himself to the last drop of his blood in his human nature so that we might become divine, like Him.
“Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the Eternal Father, and pouring out his own dear blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.”
For the next year, the newly ignited Easter Candle will preside hopefully over numerous baptisms and funerals, each with their white cloths, their sprinkled holy water and their inextricably similar roads to salvation. But for now, right now, we glory in its light. The flame dancing on top serves as a beacon for the downtrodden, a lantern for the wandering and a promise of life that can never be extinguished. In looking back and forth between the Easter Candle and our own diminutive candles we hold in our hands, we observe no distinction. The implicit command is clear. We are to carry this Light of Christ to others, everywhere we go and to everyone we meet. We are to keep this candle burning brightly until that day when we meet the Lord face to Face. In baptism we died with Christ, may we also share his everlasting glory. This is what we celebrate, the infinite and the everlasting in the here and now. The timeless is acted out in such dramatic fashion within the realm of time, and goodness triumphs over evil.
“The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives our hatred, fosters concord and brings down the mighty.”
Our hearts should soar at the wonderful exchange of God becoming man to save us from eternal separation from Him through sin so we can become the Body of Christ. For loving us so much that He condescended to become one of us in time so that we might become like Him in eternity. Not one of us should come away from this hymn unshaken, unchanged or unwilling to go forth and to amend our ways and live our lives more fully from this day forward, living for the One Who made the deaf hear, the lepers clean and set the captives free. This is the very moment of our second chance, and none of us deserves it, but we are given this gift of freedom willingly and at no cost.
“Therefore O Lord we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed to overcome the darkness of this night.”
Each and every one of us should allow that flame to spontaneously combust into an uncontrollable, raging fire of charity in our hearts. If not, we are wasting a truly transcendent moment of greatness. We must seize this opportunity and this invitation to let the Light of Christ continue burning deeply within us, to make of this not simply a passing moment, but one that takes root and manifests itself in our thoughts, words and actions for the rest of our days. Others are desperate to see the Light of Christ in us in this sorry world overcome by darkness and fear. No wonder when Christ appeared to St. Margret Mary Alacoque and showed her His Sacred Heart, it was literally burning with fire for the love of mankind, a love which most of humanity ignores or knows nothing about.
Here is our moment of transformation. We cannot walk away in dismal apathy or in shadowy disinterestedness. It is a time of decisive action, camouflaged in faint candlelight and amid scales of rising and falling notes chanted in multisyllabic words that show us, as Pope Emeritus Benedict says, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary.”
“Receive it as a pleasing fragrance, and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.”
This experience should start our engines. This moment should spur us on to picking up the pace and hurtling toward the finish line with fiery resolve and all due haste. The Exsultet should ignite and inflame our very souls rocketing up toward the heavens with a passion for compassion. For as with any candle, there is only so much time.
As the last notes of the hymn echo all around us, we extinguish our hand-held candles and the cloud of smoke hanging about is but a mere afterthought of the warm glow surrounding the light and the heat that was present within our grasp only a few seconds before. Yet the Easter Candle continues to flicker. But what also remains in the smoky haze is the unseen yet ever-present challenge. To carry that light in our spirits. To “Let our lights shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16). How many will emerge from Easter Vigil and immediately place their lights under a bushel basket? Far too many. Let us, therefore, make the effort to display our lights conspicuously on a lamp stand, so that the light can be clearly seen in the entire house. Just as the morning star rises in our hearts, so should the light of Christ be visible to others night and day by just seeing us and the joy we have in expressing our love for one another as Christians.
“May this flame be found still burning by the morning star. The one morning star who never sets, Christ your son, who coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity and lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.”