Monday, April 13, 2009

Exsultet! Rejoice!

The Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning. The determination of the time of the service according to the times of sunrise and sunset is significant, as the entire liturgy in its lessons and prayers and use of light, water, oil, bread, and wine points to the integration of spiritual things with the order of nature.

This first service of Easter Day begins with the lighting of the Paschal candle from the new fire. The deacon carries the Paschal candle into the church, and then sings the Exsultet (beginning on p. 286 of The Book of Common Prayer): “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…” As a deacon, I practice the Exsultet throughout Lent, and get very familiar with the words – a necessity when singing an important piece of liturgy by candlelight. The Exsultet is in my head and on my lips as spring begins, the days get longer, and the first tiny green leaves appear on bushes and trees. “Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.”

Some of my non-Episcopalian friends, both believers in other traditions and non-believers, comment on the connections to the Earth season as if they suspect that either our joy in the coming of springtime might somehow eclipse or diminish the appreciation of the Resurrection, or that the Gospel story is a sort of culturally approved and maybe even a slightly shady cover for a pagan celebration. What this tells me is that there are lots of people both in the Church and outside of the Church who want to keep the physical and the spiritual well separated: dualism has many devotees in today’s world.

Among the many gifts of the Holy Night proclaimed in the Exsultet is this one: “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and [we are] reconciled to God.” That image of the realms of earth and heaven being joined together in unity, and the linking of that joining to the restoration of a good and holy relationship between God and humankind get to the depths of the Easter message: in Christ, the chasm has been bridged. All of creation is infused with God’s Holy Spirit; the spiritual and the physical are intertwined. That’s why the things around us can serve as signs of God’s grace; it’s why we believe in the sacraments, and also in sacramental living in a wider sense.

The Exsultet ends with an entreaty for God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle: “May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”

May we remember throughout the year that Earth and heaven are joined, and that the world around us is God’s good and holy creation.