Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Flame Divided But Undimmed

Many of the metaphors of Easter -heck, of the whole faith- are tucked away in the Exultet. The Exultet is the poem of joy which is sung by the Deacon at the Easter Vigil. It's a cross of mythic proportions for the poor deacon to bear. It's long, it's not-quite-tuneless, it's necessarily a solo.... it's a pain. But the language is wonderful.

Easter Vigil is high theater in the Catholic Church. (Don't be offended. It's many other things, too, but it's also theater.) There's an open flame. There's a new paschal candle. There's water (impregnated by the candle, if you want to talk about strange Easter metaphors). The church is dark and then at the Gloria, the lights go on and the bells come back. It goes on and on. So, my face-saving theory is that I can forgive myself a bit for watching the metaphors of the Exultet whoosh by me.

Here are just a few that catch my attention every year.

"Oh happy fault, oh necessary sin of Adam" -My crotchety self notices that this is one of the very few (possibly the only) times that there's an admission that someone besides Eve ate the apple. But even I can't hold on to crabbiness very long in this context -and that's saying something. I get it that the poetry of the Exultet is saying that God can turn all things to good, even the original sin. But a necessary sin? Wow.

Whoosh... No time to think. Here comes "a flame divided but undimmed." The context is this. There's the big paschal candle which has just been dedicated for the year's use. Everyone in the congregation (except me last night.... I got all befuddled when I was asked to interpret, but that's another story.) has a tiny candle and these are all lit from the Easter candle. The church is still dark, except for the candles. You can watch the little pinpoints of light grow and move around the church; it's a kind of moving portrait of light. I love it every year. So now there are hundreds of candles lit, and the paschal candle burns as brightly as before.

I went on this weird "divided but undimmed" riff last night. It turns out that I had never told one of our children that a dear friend -a priest as it happens- died a little more than a year ago. I can't imagine I really didn't tell her, but she says I didn't, so the effect is the same. Last night, she turns to me before Mass and says "Stephen is here". A man who looked remarkably like Stephen has indeed walked in, and she didn't know it couldn't have been him. Stephen loved the Easter Vigil and it was a liturgical triumph when he was involved. So, I went off on this "the community is divided or separated when anyone dies or leaves, but maybe it's undimmed" tangent. That's a big leap and certainly not always true. Heck, maybe it's never true, but I gave it some thought before....

"let it (the candles) dispel the darkness of this night" - Except candles don't do that. I don't understand the physics of this, and the person who might around here is still asleep. But candles don't make the room bright. Instead, they carve out a little circle of light within the darkness. Darkness and light share the space. How cool is that, metaphorically speaking?

And now we're about 15 minutes into the 3 hour celebration, and we still have "evening came, morning followed, the first day" and the parting of the Red Sea and the baptisms..... Sheesh. What a night!

Happy Easter, dear ones. Christos Anesti!

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