Liturgy Lines: The Exsultet

by Elizabeth Harrington. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on April 11th, 2017.

The Lucernarium or Solemn Beginning of the Vigil (a bland title for such a visually exciting and captivating ritual!) is distinctly and deliberately different from the usual entrance procession at Mass.

We gather around a blazing fire (Missal rubrics); a shiny, large Easter candle is brought forward, engraved and grains of incense inserted; we process into a dark church; the space begins to sparkle as people’s candles are lit from the Easter candle; the candle and book are incensed.  And then the deacon or priest or a cantor chants the great Easter Proclamation.

The Exsultet (the opening word in Latin by which the proclamation is more commonly known) employs rich imagery to tell of the greatest events of our salvation story. But it is long and challenging, and needs to be proclaimed well if it is to be prayed well.  While some might be tempted for the sake of ease to use a paraphrase of the Exsultet set to a melodic tune, the text as given is arguably the best piece of poetry in our liturgical books, and there is no better musical setting than the Gregorian melody found in the Missal.

Like all the texts in the Missal, the version used since the introduction of the 1970 Missal changed in 2011. Longer and shorter forms are provided, with the shorter – the one usually used – containing eighty percent of the text of the longer version.  The revised translation retains startling, seemingly contradictory expressions such as happy fault and necessary sin.  The role of bees in producing the wax paschal candle, omitted in the previous Missal, was reintroduced.  More ancient texts of the prayer went to even greater lengths to extol the contribution of these industrious insects.

In the Exsultet, an initial cosmic shout of joyful exultation leads to the dialogue familiar from the Eucharistic Prayer, culminating in the phrase it is right and just.The rest of the text can be broken into three sections: the proclamation of what God has done as Creator; an instruction about the mystery at the heart of Easter when Christ, after his death, passed among the dead to scatter their darkness and transform their night into day; and thanksgiving for this act of redemption whose effects reach all creation through every age.

The repetition of the phrase this is the night reminds us that in liturgy we are not simply remembering or re-creating past events; rather, we are experiencing the original moment and are present to the saving acts that are recounted.  As we celebrate the Easter Vigil the waters part, the pillar of light leads the way and Christ is raised from the tomb.

For those who listen to the Exsultet proclaimed, it is important to understand that it is impossible to take everything in with a prayer as long as this. Some words and images will touch you more than others.  What speaks to you one year may not be what touches you when it is proclaimed again the following Easter.

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website.


  1. May I refer readers to …

    I guess I add my personal note … the Exsultet is to be intoned by the Deacon … I can’t tell you the number of times I watch the Deacon taking little or no part in the liturgical rites surround the candle.

    – “The Priest is usually assisted by a Deacon. If, however, there is no Deacon, the duties of his
    Order, except those indicated below, are assumed by the Priest Celebrant or by a concelebrant.”
    – “The Deacon or, if there is no Deacon, another suitable minister …”
    – “The Deacon, after incensing the book and the candle, proclaims the Easter Proclamation
    (Exsultet) at the ambo or at a lectern, with all standing and holding lighted candles in their
    – “The Easter Proclamation may be made, in the absence of a Deacon, by the Priest himself
    or by another concelebrating Priest. If, however, because of necessity, a lay cantor sings
    the Proclamation …”

    There are times within our faith when who says something is as important, even more important then what is said.

  2. Which is more important: to have the Exsultet sung by a deacon, or sung well? Few deacons have the ability or the musical training to sing what is the most challenging piece of music in the Roman liturgy. That is why a lay cantor is permitted to sing it, omitting those parts that are proper to a deacon.

    1. while the Exsultet is challenging, it can be, with training and practice, be chanted reverently and clearly…it is not an aria…it is a prayer

      1. Agreed! In my reading of the Exsultet, the biddings found there are appropriate to a deacon and not to a cantor. I believe a deacon should step aside from the Exsultet only when his singing ability is distractingly poor, not when he’s just not as good a singer as the cantor (or the priest).

      2. Or, as Dom Gregory Murray advised cantors, the voice should be monastic rather than operatic.

  3. Regarding the Exsultet, yes, of course, in this as in every other proclamation in the liturgy, the clarity, beauty and prayerfulness of what is proclaimed is paramount, particularly when the text is chanted. A deacon (or priest, or cantor) chanting the Exsultet should be at the service of the proclamation, not an impediment to it.
    For this reason, I would encourage my brother deacons to humbly discern whether or not they have the sufficient musical ability to do justice to both the music and the text. If the answer is no, then defer to another minister who has that ability.
    But if the answer is yes, then put in the necessary time to study the text and ponder it, to learn the chant, and to practice, practice practice in order, paraphrasing the blessing we receive before proclaiming the Exsultet, that the Lord may truly be in our hearts and on our lips, so that we may proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well.

    1. “Regarding the Exsultet, yes, of course, in this as in every other proclamation in the liturgy, the clarity, beauty and prayerfulness of what is proclaimed is paramount, particularly when the text is chanted.”
      I’m having trouble with that. I don’t think you’d want a reader or cantor to proclaim the Gospel lesson if that person has better delivery than the deacon or priest. To me, the Exsultet is a mostly parallel case.

      1. False equivalence. Proclaiming the Gospel (whether spoken or sung) is clearly reserved to a deacon or, if no deacon, to the priest. For the Exsultet, in parishes that have no deacon, the choice is effectively between the priest and a lay cantor.

      2. Reply to Robert Addington: I said that “the Exsultet is a MOSTLY parallel case,” not an equivalent one. The rubrics and content of the Exsultet prefer a deacon or priest but do not (as with the Gospel) absolutely require one. I think that that preference should not be set aside by mere considerations of greater or lesser musical quality. I think Charles Rohrbacher’s assertion that “the beauty [among other things] of what is proclaimed is paramount” isn’t tenable.

      3. As a member of the generation that can just remember tone-deaf priests struggling through High Mass, I would have to disagree. Deacon Charles has it right.

      4. “Lesser musical ability” does not equal “tone deaf.” True tone deafness is pretty rare. What most people call “tone deaf” is often lack of training and practice, which sometimes is equivalent to lack of interest in training or practice. So I would say, if a deacon is genuinely tone deaf, then by all means let someone else sing it. And if a deacon is not tone deaf, but it unwilling to get the training and put in the practice to sing it well (or has such performance anxiety that it would cause him to melt down during the liturgy–though training and practice can often take care of that), then let somebody else sing it. But if the cantor simply has a “nicer voice”—that does not seem sufficient reason to take away from the deacon what properly belongs to him.

        FWIW, I have never sung the Exsultet in my parish, even though I can sing passably (I sing the penitential rite whenever we use form C, as well as the Easter dismissal, the Christmas proclamation, etc.). Our longtime cantor had sung it for years before I arrived and I thought that if I showed up and insisted on singing it then, well, I’d just come across as an a**hole, which is not an auspicious move in pastoral ministry (though, alas, not an uncommon one).

      5. I chanted the Exsultet once, at a different parish, but ironically because they had a music ministry emergency and brought me in at at the last moment for musical accompaniment. I ended up chanting it as a music minister rather than as a deacon. Even though I also happen to be a deacon. There was a deacon from that parish who was the deacon for the service that evening; I never inquired why he didn’t sing the Exsultet, but my experience with deacons is that many aren’t looking for opportunities to sing in public.

        As for my own parish – my voice is not one that anyone would pay to hear, but I can carry a tune. In the spirit of Fritz’s comment, as a singer I’m not great but good enough to pull it off. But in my case, I’ve never been scheduled for the Easter Vigil. The deacon who, with his wife, ran RCIA for 20+ years, was always scheduled for the Vigil. He passed away a few months ago, but another deacon was asked by the staff liturgist to do the vigil – and he is not someone who would wish to sing the Exsultet. Oh well. For some reason I get assigned to the Good Friday service every year. In fact, under the direction (direct orders) of a previous pastor, and against the explicit rubric, I’ve led the Good Friday service a few times. I chant the Intercessions every year, so I feel I’m doing my part to dispel the myth that deacons don’t sing :-).

  4. Thanks for the article and comments. My only quibble would be with the claim “there is no better musical setting than the Gregorian melody found in the Missal,” which I would have agreed with until a few years ago.

    However, World Library Publications has published a setting by Tony Alonso that is just wonderful (

  5. Greetings to you Fr. Ruff and to members of the Pray Tell community from a Canadian who follows the blog postings with great attention, but has refrained from any contribution thus far.
    It is perhaps therefore imprudent that, as a first foray on this blog, I share this agent provocateur thought inspired by this post on the Exsultet and the recent ones on communion posture.
    I stand on the side of the Exsultet’s Lucifer and his angels when I stand in the real presence of Christ for communion in the hand and I believe that the Archangel Michael would be at my side, if not preoccupied with loftier duties. I find it quite sad that a Cardinal of the Church would demonize (literally?) those who would receive communion in this way.
    When I teach the Understanding the Bible course at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, I make it a point to discuss Is 14:12 in the context of biblical translation and interpretation issues. The shock value of letting my students know that the name Lucifer for the Devil is not strictly biblical and that the Latin Exsultet refers to Jesus the Christ as Lucifer (a fact hidden in the English translation Morning Star, rather than a transliteration of Lucifer) has always been more positive than negative.
    Pax Christi

  6. About “there is no better musical setting than the Gregorian melody found in the Missal.”
    This is undoubtedly true of the Latin, but having coached priests in singing the ICEL version I have to say that it would be massively improved with some tweaks to the underlay, without losing the shape of the melody at all.
    Parts are so awkward as to be an obstacle to those who aren’t very confident.

    1. This is more true of the 2011 version. Some of the alterations seem to be change for there sake of change. I found the earlier words more comfortable to sing. It was always a privilege for me as a female cantor.

  7. On further reflection, I must agree with Fr Fritz above. Still, if I were a deacon or priest, I wouldn’t dream of singing the Exsultet without careful preparation under the guidance of a voice teacher. How many deacons or priests are willing to do this?

    1. Of course, it helps if priests and deacons were at least familiar with chanting the dialogues and orations during regular Sunday Masses, instead of having the Exsultet be a rare instance of such chanting. In the liturgical reform, it’s not envisioned that it would be a rare instance; rather, it’s something of an expectation, given how the effective barriers to having a sung liturgy were reduced in the reform. The chanting cadences of the Exsultet are not that terribly complicated; it’s not bel canto.

      1. Good point, Karl. But it does raise an important question: What musical training, if any, are our future deacons and priests receiving?

      2. Shouldn’t the choirmaster or director of music, be training and coaching the priest and deacon in the chanting of their parts of the Mass if they cannot? These should be chanted every Sunday, not just on special occasions. If they are not chanting their parts of the Mass, the revised Mass is no different than the old Mass in it’s Low form. Something not invisioned by Vatican II.

      3. As much as a support sung liturgy – and I do very strongly – I’m not sure that priests and deacons are exactly standing in line eagerly awaiting singing lessons. And the very mixed ability of clergy to sing the liturgy is one of those large, cultural issues that by nature moves very slowly and can’t be fixed easily. Prayerful, confident sung rendition of the Eucharistic Prayer is beautiful. But if this (and other presidential chants) cannot be sung at a certain minimum standard, it is much better for it to be recited.Musicam sacram (1967) has this exactly right. Presidential singing that makes the liturgy painful is not the way forward.

      4. Robert – regarding the musical training and formation that deacons receive: I can report that my particular ordination class, the first in the Chicago Archdiocese to be formed and ordained according to the norms of the Holy See’s Basic Norms for the Formation of Deacons, received no musical training at all. That Vatican document, in its enumeration of dimensions of diaconal formation, doesn’t include music among its liturgical requirements, but does admit that formation in sacred music may be “useful” (no. 86).

        For the United States, the USCCB has promulgated a National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. It has much great content, but except for a passage (no. 132) that virtually repeats word for word the Vatican’s suggestion that a knowledge of sacred music would be “useful”, it seems to say nothing specific at all about musical formation nor demonstration of mastery or ability as a condition for ordination or ministry.

        When I’ve organized liturgies for our diocese’s diaconal community, I’ve had us chant Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, virtually end-to-end. However, more recently the Diaconate Office has pulled back from that commitment to chant; at our recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the diaconate in the US, the only element of Morning Prayer that was sung was the hymn. And I daresay many/all of us can point to anecdotes of deacons in our community who don’t chant the Easter dismissal, don’t chant the penitential rite, and so on.

        I see this minimalistic musical approach as a symptom of the church’s overall reluctance to sing the liturgy. We don’t see chant and song as integral to the liturgy – as important an element as the words of the rite. Certainly, presiders don’t.

  8. Sorry Father, priests and deacons don’t get a pass. If the congregation is commanded to sing their parts (and more!), then the priest and the deacon should too. I don’t see learning to chant the collects or preface or some versicles as a large, cultural issue that moves very slowly. It only moves slowly if the clergy want it to. Again, if they didn’t learn it as part of their clerical formation then it’s also the domain of the music director to work with them to teach them and ensure that they can. They just need to submit to him/her and therein lies the rub perhaps? I’d be interested in hearing what the Roman Church’s minimum quality standards for chanting by priests and deacons are. They must be pretty high.

    1. I think they do a bit better with priests than with deacons. I know of some diocese where seminarians are at least to learn to chant the preface and dialogues, though whether they ever do it again after getting out of “Mass class” is anybody’s guess. In my diocese deacons get exactly nothing in way of musical formation. I was told that we could learn that stuff at our field placements prior to ordination. Nobody told my field placement that and I would have felt foolish asking someone (who?) to instruct me. So I just picked stuff out on a piano and sort of figured the basics out on my own.

  9. As a church Music Director, it does not fall under my responsibilities to give free lessons to a Deacon who is unable to sing. I currently work at a church with a Deacon who has absolutely no musical training. He is incapable of singing and maintaining pitch on his own. My previous pastor insisted that this Deacon sing the Exsultet, because he believed that a Deacon should do it, regardless of musical ability. I did work with the Deacon in preparation of the vigil. I spent 2 hours going over the Exsultet with him, line by line. When the Vigil arrived, he chanted the Exsultet and didn’t hit a single note correctly. It was truly awful and embarrassing for him. He changed key literally 20 or so times. Even the average parishioner with no formal music training knew that it was terribly wrong. Because the pastor permitted this, the Deacon truly belived that he did a great job and is now overly confident in his “ability” to sing and refuses to let any one else take over the Exsultet, because he “did it before”.

    People who are insistent that a Deacon chant this piece regardless of musical ability need to understand that music in the church is Sacred and there is a certain standard that needs to be maintained. It has nothing to do with “her voice is better than his voice”, but rather, “who is more capable of chanting this piece while mainting the integrity and beauty of the sacred text?”. 40-60% of the population is incapable of matching pitch, especially a capella. If a Deacon falls under this category, he should NOT sing the Exsultet. Period. It even states that if a Deacon is unable to sing the Exsultet “worthily”, then he should not do it.

  10. I always loved the Exsultet until the new translation but now I find myself taking issue with many unhappy and unbeautiful phrases. As an ordinary member of the congregation, might I point out that I find the prayers of the Mass are now very difficult to follow when they are spoken but incomprehensible when they are chanted.

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