What is the Exsultet?

The Proclamation of Easter

This multi-part series on the Exsultet, the first major section of the annual Easter Vigil celebration, is written by MPB parishioner Daniel Smith. Daniel proclaims the Exsultet annually during the Easter Vigil. This year, the Easter Vigil for the Blue Hills Collaborative will be held at Most Precious Blood parish on March 31, 2018.

Part 1: Let them Exult

The tradition of the Easter Candle goes back to the roots of Christianity. The Jewish custom of lighting a lamp at the end of the Sabbath carried over into an early form of what we call the Easter Vigil’s “Service of Light,” originally part of the Sunday liturgy. As an annual solemn celebration of the Resurrection became more widespread, the Service of Light associated with that celebration was treated with special solemnity. As early as the 4th century we find references to the custom of singing a hymn in praise and thanksgiving for the special candle used for this Service – a hymn which evolved to become the Easter Proclamation we call the “Exsultet,” after its first word in Latin.

Part 2: This Is the Night

The Easter Vigil, or Vigil in the Holy Night, is a “night-watch” waiting for the Resurrection. As we wait we reflect on our salvation history, particularly through the multiple readings. But in a special way the Exsultet with its poetry draws our attention to this history and the Easter symbols associated with it: the Passover memorial and feast, made perfect by the sacrifice of the “one true Lamb;” the crossing of the Red Sea into freedom, recalled by the Baptismal liturgy and our renewal of promises; the pillar of fire defending the Israelites in the darkness, symbolized by the great candle; and of course, the moment of the Resurrection itself, that makes it a “truly blessed night.”

Part 3 – An Evening Sacrifice of Praise

The ancient Easter Vigil lasted throughout the night, ending with a Mass at dawn. As the centuries passed it kept moving earlier in the day; by the High Middle Ages it was celebrated Holy Saturday morning. Holding the Vigil in broad daylight so early separated it from Easter Day – and made certain parts of the Exsultet, asking God to "dispel the darkness of this night," awkward to say the least. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII made a reform of the Easter Vigil, restructuring it to reflect original custom and with an eye toward increased participation. As part of that reform, he required it to begin after sunset with all church lights extinguished, so that the Service of Light begins in darkness.

Part 4 – By Sharing of Its Light

Light is one of the best symbols of the mystery of God, how He exists in relationship both with Himself as a Trinity and with us as the Mystical Body. The Nicene Creed we proclaim at Sunday Mass hails Jesus as “God from God, light from light” to show that the Son is distinct from but consubstantial with the Father, just as one fire can light another that is separate but alike. Likewise, the Exsultet calls the Easter Candle “a fire into many flames divided.” We all hold candles lit from the one Easter Candle, which loses nothing “by sharing of its light;” just so, we are all the Body of Christ united to our Head, Who through us is the Light of the world.

Part 5 – Drawn Out by Mother Bees

The Easter Candle is properly made, of course, from beeswax – a point that is brought up at least twice in the Exsultet. The candle itself is described as “the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,” and the flame of the candle is said to be “fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees.” Bees are social creatures, skillful workers, always active – they are meant to be a model for us Christians to build up the Church as they built up this great candle we offer to God. Like the bees, each of us has a job to do, each of us has a part to contribute to this great work. 

Part 6 - The One Morning Star Who Never Sets 

In its conclusion, the Exsultet prays that the Easter Candle may “mingle with the lights of heaven” and “be found still burning by the Morning Star.” While ancient peoples used this term to refer to Venus when it appeared on the horizon before dawn, “Morning Star” – in Latin, lucifer – has two different meanings in Christianity. It is one of the titles of Jesus in Revelation 22, but is also a title of the fallen Babylon (and later, Satan) in Isaiah 14. By going on to call it the Morning Star “Who never sets” (or even more literally from the Latin, “Who knows not how to fall”), the Exsultet firmly identifies Christ, defeater of death and the devil, as the Bringer of morning light – the One Whose rising ends our night-watch. 

Part 7 – That I May Sing

The proper minister of the Exsultet – that is, the person who, with all things being equal, should sing the Easter praise – is a deacon, whose duty it was traditionally to light the Easter Candle. Deacons in particular are charged with the responsibility of proclamation, especially of proclaiming the Gospel at Mass. In the absence of a deacon, a celebrating priest is to sing the Exsultet, but out of necessity a lay cantor may be asked to sing the proclamation. When this occurs, the text is adjusted so that the lay cantor does not sing those parts of it that are inappropriate for someone who has not received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. (Perhaps after 2020, we may hear Stephen proclaim to us the entire text!)


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!

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.

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.

(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle's perfect praises.)

(V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.)
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.
V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart 
and with devoted service of our voice, 
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, 
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
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.

These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.

This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.

This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.

O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!

This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.

The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.   
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, 
accept this candle, a solemn offering, 
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, 
an evening sacrifice of praise, 
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

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.

Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.

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 for ever and ever.

R. Amen.

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