“Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout salvation for the victory of our mighty king . . .”
These are the opening words of the Exsultet, the chant sung by the deacon at the Great Vigil of Easter invoking all powers and creatures to praise God, while recounting the story of our salvation through Christ’s victory over the darkness of death. Standing by the flame of a single candle, the deacon successively calls on angels and archangels, all earth and creation, the whole church and those gathered on that night, to “sing with me the praise of this great light,” which is the Light of Christ.
Whenever I am planning to sing the Exsultet, I feel as if I have entered a strange time warp. While I am still deep in the darkness and deprivation of Lent, my private hours are spent singing of the light. In the lonely church, I stand in the darkness (figuratively and literally, in order to prepare for the dusky setting of the Vigil itself) and proclaim the light, though no one hears but me. Singing alone in the dark, conversing with the trappings of the faith but with none of the faithful, I often find myself summoning the light to my own spirit, even singing back to my Creator.
The early Church expressed much the same emotional experience in liturgical singing. To sing was to be in harmony with the universe, bringing the human person into tune with songs sung by the stars and the planets themselves.1 C.S. Lewis offers a simpler view of the same notion when, in The Magician’s Nephew, he presents the great Lion singing all creation into existence, and, one by one, all creation returns his song.2
As the world scales back on its gatherings in response to the ever advancing coronavirus, which seems to many to be our present darkness, I am preparing for an Easter Vigil that looks doubtful. Being a nervous singer, I have already begun singing those old familiar words, which stand even more in contrast with this unexpectedly somber Lent. I truly do not know if, as in years past, I will get the chance to sing to a full congregation, but I prepare anyway. Stopping by the church before the Lenten gathering, alone in the darkness, I have begun to find myself singing to the darkness itself, reminding myself—despite any evil that might creep in—of what has already taken place in the heavens: “This is the night when you brought our forebears, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land. . . . When with a pillar of fire, you banished the darkness of our iniquity . . . when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and restored to grace and holiness of life . . . when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”3
As I write, we are in the early hours of that night. We have watched and waited as a virus that we do not fully understand has slipped across borders and now approaches our own neighborhoods. For some, it has already arrived. Anxiety has gone before it. Church leaders have met to ask the hard questions about how best to protect the most vulnerable among us, how to stay at our posts and provide sacraments and care, how to best comply with government requests and medical wisdom. We have begun to ask what will become of us, as our clergy step up to the front lines of pastoral care, and as some inevitably face quarantine and illness themselves. We have made immediate plans, but we may not all have made contingency plans. As you read this, my words may seem quaint, or perhaps overblown. I do not know which.
It is in that darkness I sing. We, the Church, are now at a tipping point. The early Church was known for its care of the sick in times of plague. While those who were able to do so ran from the darkness, the Church ran into it. Today, we have hospitals to attend to the sick, but the Church must not become complacent about caring for the most vulnerable, whether they be spiritually or physically vulnerable.
The world, of course, will be watching. What is in our hearts will show for all to see. I am reminded of Queen Esther, who was placed in her own darkness for exactly that moment in which she would risk her life to save her people. I am reminded also of Ephrem, the fourth-century deacon known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” whose poetry ascended to the heights of heaven, but who died caring for the sick in his plague-ridden town.
As the witness of saints and patriarchs bears down heavily upon us, we swallow our own anxieties and attend to others. As the darkness closes in, we hold fast. And we wait. The letters have been written, unnecessary gatherings have been cancelled. As the virus inches nearer, we watch the news with everyone else. We pray, and we listen. Already most of us are weary.
Nonetheless, we sing in the darkness. For on one other night, a night when the darkness itself was complete and the stone had been rolled over the doorway, another voice rose up and sang: “This is the night of which it is written, the night shall be as bright as the day.”
It does not matter if I sing those words in public or not. I sing because He sings.
1. Boersma, Hans. Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church. Baker Academic, 2018, p. 143.
2. Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2009. pp. 61-62.
3. All quoted liturgical text is from the Book of Common Prayer 2019. Anglican Liturgy Press, pp. 583-4.