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The Exsultet (spelled in pre-1920 editions of the Roman Missal as Exultet) or Easter Proclamation, in Latin Praeconium Paschale, is the hymn of praise sung, ideally by the deacon, before the paschal candle during the Easter Vigil in the Roman Rite of Mass. In the absence of a deacon, it may be sung by a priest, or by a cantor. It is sung after a procession with the Paschal Candle before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word. It is also used in Anglican and various Lutheran Churches, as well as other Western Christian denominations.
Since the 1955 revision of the Holy Week rites, the Roman Missal explicitly gives the title "Praeconium" to the Exsultet, as it already did implicitly in the formula it provided for blessing the deacon before the chant: "ut digne et competenter annunties suum Paschale praeconium". Outside Rome, use of the paschal candle appears to have been a very ancient tradition in Italy, Gaul, Spain, and perhaps, from the reference by St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, XV, xxii), in Africa. The Liber Pontificalis attributes to Pope Zosimus its introduction in the local Church in Rome. The formula used for the "Praeconium" was not always the Exsultet, 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. The regularity of the metrical cursus of the Exsultet 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 manuscript in which it appears are those of the three Gallican Sacramentaries: -- the Bobbio Missal (seventh century), the Missale Gothicum and the Missale Gallicanum Vetus (both of the eighth century). The earliest manuscript of the Gregorian Sacramentary (Vat. Reg. 337) does not contain the Exsultet, 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 on Palm Sunday, and the blessing of the baptismal font at the Easter Vigil. The order is, briefly:
In pre-1970 forms of the Roman Rite the deacon, or if there is no deacon the priest himself, puts off his violet vestments and wears a white dalmatic for the entry into the church with the paschal candle and the singing or recitation of the Exsultet, resuming the violet vestments immediately afterwards. In the later form, white vestments are worn throughout. The affixing, in the pre-1955 form of the Roman Rite, of five grains of incense at the words incensi hujus sacrificium probably arose from a misconception of the meaning of the text, and was removed in Pope Pius XII's revision.
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 while, in the pre-1955 form of the rite, the deacon is lighting the candle. In Italy the Praeconium was sung from long strips of parchment, gradually unrolled as the deacon proceeded. These "Exsultet Rolls" were decorated with illuminations and with the 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.
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
Exsúltet iam angélica turba cælórum:
Until 1955, the Exsultet ended with a long prayer for the (Holy Roman) Emperor:
The head of the Holy Roman Empire alone could be prayed for with this formula, and the resignation in 1806 of the prerogatives of that position by Emperor Francis II of Austria, left that position unfilled thereafter, so that the prayer was in practice not used.
And so, after 1804, the prayer actually ended with the immediately preceding petition for the members of the Church:
However, by the decree Imperii Galliarum of 10 September 1857, Pope Pius IX allowed Emperor Napoleon III of France to be prayed for in the Exsultet from 1858 to 1870, not with the formula reserved for the Holy Roman Emperor, but only by adding "necnon gloriosissimo Imperatore nostro N." to the preceding petition, which became:
In 1955 Pope Pius XII added a phrase to the prayer for the members of the Church and definitively removed the prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor, replacing it with a generic prayer for the civil authorities inspired by the prayer for the Emperor:
This was removed in the 1970 revision.
[After the candle bearer places the paschal candle in its stand, the cantor, deacon, or assisting minister turns to face the people and chants the Exsultet.]
[The following exchange between the presiding pastor and the congregation takes place.]
[The presiding pastor then chants or speaks the conclusion of the Exsultet.]