Hymn in praise of the paschal candle sung by the deacon, in the liturgy of Holy Saturday
Exultet, the hymn in praise of the paschal candle sung by the deacon, in the liturgy of Holy Saturday. In the missal the title of the hymn is “Praeconium”, as appears from the formula used at the blessing of the deacon: “ut digne et competenter annunties suum Paschale praeconium”. Outside Rome, the use of the paschal candle appears to have been very ancient in Italy, Gaul, Spain, and perhaps, from the reference by St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, XV, xxii), in Africa. The “Liber Pontificalis” attributes its introduction in the local Roman Church to Pope Zosimus. The formula used for the “Praeconium” was not always the “Exultet”, though it is perhaps true to say that this formula has survived, where other contemporary formulae have disappeared. In the “Liber Ordinum”, for instance, the formula is of the nature of a benediction, and the Gelasian Sacramentary has the prayer “Deus mundi conditor”, not found elsewhere, but containing the remarkable “praise of the bee”—possibly a Vergilian reminiscence—which is found with more or less modification in all the texts of the “Praeconium” down to the present day. The regularity of the metrical cursus of the “Exultet” would lead us to place the date of its composition perhaps as early as the fifth century, and not later than the seventh. The earliest MSS. in which it appears are those of the three Gallican Sacramentaries:—the Bobbio Missal (seventh century), the Missale Gothicum and the Missale Gallicanism Vetus (both of the eighth century). The earliest MS. of the Gregorian Sacramentary (Vat. Reg. 337) does not contain the “Exultet”, but it was added in the supplement to what has been loosely called the Sacramentary of Adrian, and probably drawn up under the direction of Alcuin.
As it stands in the liturgy, it may be compared with two other forms, the Blessing of Palms, and the Blessing of the Baptismal Font. The order is, briefly:
(I) An invitation to those present to join with the deacon in the invocation of the blessing of God, that the praises of the candle may be worthily celebrated. This invitation, wanting in the two blessings just mentioned, may be likened to an amplified “Orate fratres”, and its antiquity is attested by its presence in the Ambrosian form, which otherwise differs from the Roman. This section closes with the “Per omnia saecula saeculorum”, leading into:—(2) “Dominus vobiscum” etc., “Sursum corda” etc., “Gratias agamus” etc. This section serves as the introduction to the body of the “Praeconium”, cast in the Eucharistic form to emphasize its solemnity. (3) The “Praeconium” proper, which is of the nature of a Preface, or, as it is called in the Missale Gallicanum Vetus, a contestatio. First, a parallel is drawn between the Passover of the Old and the New Covenants, the candle being here a type of the Pillar of Fire. And here the language of the liturgy rises into heights to which it is hard to find a parallel in Christian literature. We are drawn out of cold dogmatic statement into the warmth of the deepest mysticism, to the region where, in the light of paradise, even the sin of Adam may be regarded as “truly necessary” and “a happy fault”. Secondly, the candle itself is offered as a burnt-sacrifice, a type of Christ, marked by the grains of incense as with the five glorious wounds of His Passion. And, lastly, the “Praeconium” ends with a general intercession for those present, for the clergy, for the pope, and for the Christian rulers. For these last the text as it stands cannot now be used. The head of the Holy Roman Empire alone could be prayed for in this formula, and the resignation (1804) of the prerogatives of that august position, by the Emperor Francis II of Austria, has left that position unfilled to the present day.
It remains to notice three accessaries of the “Exultet”: the ceremonial carried on during its performance; the music to which it has been sung; and the so-called “Exultet-rolls” on which it was sometimes written. The deacon is vested in a white dalmatic, the rest of the sacred ministers are vested in purple. The affixing of five grains of incense at the words incensi hujus sacrificium has probably arisen from a misconception of the meaning of the text. The lighting of the candle is followed by the lighting of all the lamps and candles of the church, extinguished since the close of Matins. The chant is usually an elaborate form of the well-known recitative of the Preface. In some uses a long bravura was introduced upon the word accendit, to fill in the pause, which must otherwise occur during the lighting of the candle. An elaborate analysis of the chant, as found in early MSS., has been published in “Paleographie Musicale”, IV; viii, 171. Dom Latil has published the text, and part of the highly ornate chant, of an “Exultet” at Salerno. The text is almost identical with one previously published by Duchesne from a roll at Bari. In Italy the “Praeconium” was sung from long strips of parchment, gradually unrolled as the deacon proceeded. These “Exultet-rolls” were decorated with illuminations and with portraits of contemporary reigning sovereigns, whose names were mentioned in the course of the “Praeconium”. The use of these rolls, as far as is known at present, was confined to Italy. The best examples date from the tenth and eleventh centuries.
CHARLTON BENEDICT WALKER