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God zooms in

by
04 April 2007

At Easter, the Church sings of the ordinary become extraordinary, says Edward Dowler

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs

  of angels!

O Universe, dance around God’s throne!

Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!

Sound the victorious trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in glory, revealing

  the splendour of your creation

radiant in the brightness of your triumphant

  King!

Christ has conquered! Now his life

  and glory fill you!

Darkness vanishes for ever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!

The risen Saviour, our Lord of life,

  shines upon you!

Let all God’s people sing and shout for joy.

Introduction to the Exsultet

Common Worship: Times and seasons

I WAS recently introduced by a friend to the website Google Earth. You type in the name of any single place in the world, and wait as, in a dizzying experience, the earth spins on its axis, and you zoom in to an aerial view of the exact location that you have selected.

The Exsultet, an ancient (c. fifth-century) hymn in praise of the Easter candle, is sung by the deacon at the Easter vigil on the eve of Easter Day, immediately after the candle has been brought into church before the Liturgy of the Word.

Singing the Exsultet is one of the most terrifying tasks in the first year of ordained ministry, not only because of the comparative musical complexity of the piece, but also because of the enormous scope of what it describes. As with Google Earth, the opening verses begin with the widest possible picture: “Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!”, but quickly zoom in further: “Rejoice, O earth in shining splendour”, and further: “Rejoice, O Mother Church!”

Sadly, the various versions found in Times and Seasons, and the predecessor version in Lent, Holy Week and Easter, all omit the final verse from the Roman rite, which focuses in even further on the gathered community in a particular time and place:

My dearest friends, standing with me

   in this holy light,

join me in asking God for mercy,

that he may give his unworthy minister

grace to sing his Easter praises.

With the addition of this, we are taken, in four short verses, from the macro-level — the widest view of a universe rejoicing on Easter Day — down to the micro-level of Christians celebrating together the resurrection of Christ in countless individual communities.

What the opening verses do geographically, the continuing verses do historically. As Benedicta Ward notes in her meditations on Holy Week (In Company with Christ, SPCK, 2005), the recurrent phrase of the Exsultet “This is the night” (“This is the night when first you saved our fathers”; “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death”) centres all time in the events of this one night.

The Old Testament readings that immediately follow the Exsultet echo its words by placing the resurrection within the broadest historical context, as they make explicit the links between Easter Day and the great deeds of God in creation and redemption.

Ascribing universal or cosmic significance to events that are local and particular is not, of course, without its problems. How could the events that happened at a particular location and date have universal significance in the way that Christians say they do? Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, excoriated Christians for worshipping “to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently”.

His complaint was that those who claim to be monotheists, worshipping one God who is, by definition, immeasurably greater than we can ever imagine, undercut their claim by paying attention to a single human life, which, however exceptional, took place in a particular location and time in history.

This was sometimes referred to by theologians of the previous century, in a phrase that now sounds a little quaint, as the “scandal of particularity”. It is summed up by Karl Barth: “The Word did not simply become any ‘flesh’, any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. . . [Christ’s] universality is revealed in this particularity.” The Exsultet bears eloquent witness to the fact that, in Jesus’s resurrection, the particular breaks through to the universal in just the way that critics of Christianity have found so hard to stomach.

THE DOMINICAN writer Herbert McCabe pointed out in the 1960s that the threat of nuclear war (to which we might now add a variety of other possible catastrophes) has made it rather easier for us to imagine that events that seem to be local and particular might have cosmic consequences. Fr McCabe writes that:

A generation ago it was quite generally felt amongst educated people that one of the things that really disqualified Christianity as a serious account of man was the ridiculously provincial idea that the events of a few hours on a hill outside Jerusalem could be of significance for the whole of human history. Let us by all means admit that Jesus of Nazareth played a startlingly large part in history, but the Christians make an absurdly larger claim. I think our present generation cannot feel quite the same, for we know that the events of a few hours on a slope outside Washington, where the Pentagon is, could undoubtedly have this total significance.

Law, Love, Language (Continuum, 1968, 2003)

A generation ago it was quite generally felt amongst educated people that one of the things that really disqualified Christianity as a serious account of man was the ridiculously provincial idea that the events of a few hours on a hill outside Jerusalem could be of significance for the whole of human history. Let us by all means admit that Jesus of Nazareth played a startlingly large part in history, but the Christians make an absurdly larger claim. I think our present generation cannot feel quite the same, for we know that the events of a few hours on a slope outside Washington, where the Pentagon is, could undoubtedly have this total significance.

Law, Love, Language (Continuum, 1968, 2003)

Moreover, if events that take place at local level might lead, as Fr McCabe suggests, to some large-scale problems, the local might also be the source of some of the solutions. For, on one assessment of the possible future that we face — environmental degradation, or the threat of war — we may, contrary to expectations, be led us to a society that is increasingly parochial, freed from the delusions of globalisation. As one commentator predicts: “Life will become intensely and increasingly local” (J. H. Kunstler, The Long Emergency, Atlantic Books, 2005).

Luckily, as the Exsultet and the entire Easter vigil remind us, we have a God who loves to work with the small-scale, the local, and the particular. His greatness shows itself not only in the rejoicing of heavenly powers, but in the celebrations of each and every small Christian community celebrating the resurrection. His light originates in a single spark (struck traditionally in Jerusalem from the rock of the cave-tomb), but one that comes to illuminate hundreds of candles. His power is made manifest in the single night when Christ rises from the dead, for “this is the night” when the whole earth really is made to spin on its axis.

The Revd Edward Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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