EXULTING THE EXULTET
As a rock climber lifts eyes to a cliff, as a hiker beholds the Grand Canyon, as a shoreside sailor gazes at the open sea, so stares the cantor at the exultet--with fear, excitement, self-doubt, and determination.
In the history of music for Mass, no song was more important, no chant more beautifully crafted, no moment so significant as the exultet on the Easter Vigil. Today we may execute it in different ways, but the exultet remains one of the trickiest moments of the entire Paschal Triduum. The one who sings it accepts the noblest of tasks, an honor for the singer whose faith, skill, and spirituality can only burst forth in this great song of Easter joy.
To behold its challenge, open the sacramentary. You'll find text and music under "Easter Sunday During the Night: The Easter Vigil, Part One: the Service of Light." After the new fire is blessed, after the towering new Easter candle has been set ablaze, after the assembly have lit their tapers and processed into the church, the exultet, or "Easter Proclamation," begins.
At first glance . . .
At first, it looks straightforward. Key of C. What could be so hard about this? Then you turn the page. And turn it again. And again. Seven pages of notes with shifting rhythmic patterns. Parts in parentheses are marked "short form;" they begin to entice. At the end, the editors present the text again, this time without notes, cueing one of the most distasteful options in the modern liturgy. You can recite the whole thing.
That won't do. The text is too important, the event too special. The exultet deserves to be sung, and sung well.
A proclamation of joy and salvation
The exultet has roots in the first centuries of Christianity. In form, it is a "thanksgiving," a cousin to the eucharistic prayer. It recalls the greatness of God, includes a dialogue with the assembly like the introduction to a preface, and concludes with an offering--an offering of the candle to God.
The text expresses the meaning of Easter. It invites heaven, earth, and the church to rejoice ("exultet") in this feast. It recalls Israel's exodus, then it proclaims a new "exodus". New Christians cross through water from slavery to freedom, and all the church shares in the rising of Christ. Easter is the most blessed of nights, the night of Passover, baptism, resurrection, and redemption. In joy we offer God our Easter candle, a pillar of fire, mingling with the lights of heaven, a candle which will meet Christ, the Morning Star, whose resurrection forever dispels darkness.
The exultet is a whopper of a proclamation, and the early church wrapped it in a cloak of melodious chant, then entrusted it to the deacon, whose ministry added to its dignity. Communities blessed with a gifted deacon experienced a powerful beginning to the Easter feast: a rich proclamation of salvation, sung in gorgeous chant by a minister ordained for proclaming the gospel.
Changes bring new challenges
Now, of course, things are different. The Mass is in vernacular languages. Music includes forms more harmonious with the culture and climate of the worshipping community. A deacon or priest still may sing the exultet, but so may a cantor. Also, the assembly may now sing acclamations throughout the proclamation. We've lost a rich tradition in which, from one generation to the next, every Easter Vigil of the entire Roman Catholic Church opened with the same piece of music. But we've gained an opportunity to sing it in a language that may be readily understood, in a style which may engage the listener, and with acclamations to enhance its power. Pitfalls lie everywhere. The exultet offers blessings, but it also poses problems. For example, many people have experienced the exultet as long and boring, a terrible way to begin the most significant liturgy of the year. Indeed, the text is ponderous, hard to understand, not especially poetic in English, and dependent on a skilled soloist. The Easter Vigil is long, and if it starts dull, the whole experience will feel like three days in a tomb.
There are logistical problems. Before the vigil, the ministers of the church are often disarrayed--choirs rehearsing, catechumens missing, servers wondering, and a celebrant glad that Easter comes once a year. If you start on time, consider yourselves blessed. Frequently the liturgy begins late, the fire won't ignite, the procession moves aimlessly, the deacon and cantor flub their cues, and when the exultet finally begins, the singer discovers it's too dark to see the thing. In fact, the rubrics say the lights of the church should come on before the exultet, but many communities hold the electrical switches until after, so that the natural light of the Easter fire illumines the church while its meaning is proclained. It's a beautiful symbol, but it will fluster an ill-prepared cantor.
Strategy for success
There is much a cantor can do to give the exultet its due. Be prepared for the logistical problems. Find out where the Easter candle will be, where you will stand, where to place your music, and if you'll have enough light. Hold your taper, get assistants to help with theirs, and, if it's absolutely necessary, go ahead and use a flashlight.
Know the music well. If you're singing the sacramentary' version, sing confidently and keep the tempo up. Do not emphasize every note. Think of the beat every two to three notes, depending on the natural rhythm of the English words. Try it with two eighth notes equalling about seventy-two on the metronome, the pulse of a healthy human heart. Keep a smile on your face. Sing as if you're announcing a birth in your family.
Above all, remember the purpose of this proclamation. Pray over the text so you understand it. It will mean more to you if you have accompanied a catechumen toward baptism. It will mean more if your community has kept a good Lent. It will mean more if you have spent six weeks in sorrow for your sins, with conviction in the redeeming power of Christ. Then when you open your mouth on Easter, you'll have something to sing about.