by Michael O’Connor
I have been attending the Easter Vigil since I was in short trousers. In all those decades, the lighting has followed a similar pattern:
Church in darkness; fire; Easter Candle lit, then flame passed to the tapers held by each member of the assembly; “The Light of Christ” three times; Exsultet proclaimed in the semi-darkness; tapers extinguished and, in half-light (or near-total darkness), the Old Testament readings follow. At the end of these readings, there is a sudden change: the church is ablaze with light as the Gloria begins, the organ finally unrestrained in its power; also, the altar candles are lit. I’ve worshiped in a variety of institutions and parishes, on two continents, and this has been the basic pattern in all of them.
I discovered this year that the wording in the Missal calls for something different. After the third “light of Christ” is sung, “the Deacon places the paschal candle on a large candlestand prepared next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary. And lights (lampades) are lit throughout the church, except for the altar candles.” The Exsultet is, therefore, to be proclaimed in a combined blaze of candlelight and electric light. This light then bathes the readings from the law and the prophets in its paschal glow.
The next reference to lights is the following: “After the last reading from the Old Testament with its Responsorial Psalm and its prayer, the altar candles are lit, and the Priest intones the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), which is taken up by all, while bells are rung, according to local custom.” In other words, the return of the Gloria is marked not by lighting effects but by sound – music and bells.
The common adaptation makes some clear gains: the proclamation of the light of the resurrection happens in the festive glow of candles, rather than the quotidian glare of electric lights. And the Lenten fast from the Gloria (and alleluia) comes to an end with a multi-sensory fanfare.
But I wonder if something is lost. Why is the Easter light welcomed into the assembly, only to be extinguished at the end of the Exsultet with the darkness taking hold once more? Why is the proclamation of creation and redemption – with all the accompanying paschal psalms and prayers – cast into a crepuscular gloom? Are those readings outside the embrace of the resurrection? In the seventies it was even the practice in some parishes to re-structure the Vigil so that the liturgy of light followed the near-complete darkness of the Old Testament readings. In all of this, is there an unconscious supersessionism at work in the way the Hebrew scriptures are treated? Against all the words that are spoken and sung, does the lighting of the Vigil say that the Old Testament is darkness and the New alone is light?
Dr. Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor in the Christianity and Culture program at St. Michael’s College University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history and practice of music and the liturgy, and on theology and biblical exegesis in the Christian tradition. He also runs a weekly Singing Club on campus and directs the USMC Schola Cantorum.