Monday, April 9, 2012

The Exsulstet (Part I) - A Radical King

Our Easter season now lasts until Pentecost, and is a time when we as Christians continue to celebrate the joy that was so beautifully expressed in the Exsulstet.  This hymn, which dates to between the 5th-7th centuries, is sung only once a year at the Easter Vigil.  It is usually sung without instrumentation, and it usually takes a cantor 7-8 minutes to sing.  It is sung while the church is in total darkness save for the newly lit paschal candle and for the candles of the faithful, all of whom share the fire and new light of the paschal candle.  Here's what the Exsulstet sounds like:

The Exsulstet is a profound poem of joy, theologically rich and complex.  It seems only fitting to spend some time with this hymn, to meditate on it, as we continue our 50-day celebration of Easter.

The first stanza reads as follows:

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

What strikes me immediately are the two references in this stanza to Jesus Christ as ‘King.’  This notion of Jesus as ‘King’ is one we’ve encountered a number of times in the readings over the past week.  On Palm Sunday we celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as a king.  On Good Friday was read the entire passion narrative of John, which contains the rather cryptic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate where Jesus talks about himself as a king.  And we read as well that Jesus was ‘crowned’ by his persecutors with a crown of thorns to mock his self-professed kingship, and that over Jesus’ head on the cross were written the words, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’

And now, in the Exsulstet, we praise ‘our mighty King’s triumph.’

This imagery of ‘kingship’ indicates that there are political implications to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are not talking about Jesus as king in a metaphorical sense.  Jesus is truly ‘King.’  But what we see in this idea of Jesus as ‘King’ is a redefining of the political, a revising of what it means to be political.

In Jesus we see kingship modeled as utterly selfless love.  Jesus’ kingship is not one that revolves around power, but is one that manifests itself as a servant washing his disciples’ feet.  It manifests itself as one willingly going to death like a lamb to the slaughter rather than one who is willing to use force.  It manifests itself by being raised onto a cross rather than onto a throne. 

The triumph of our ‘mighty King’ to which the Exsulstet refers is the triumph of selfless love over the violence of the political.  The new life made possible by the Resurrection is not only the life that triumphs over death.  It is a new life insofar as it is a new way of being in the world, one modeled for us by the selfless King who consistently chose servanthood over power.

This is a radically new way of being.  But it is even more a radically new way of being political.  Now, when churches in this nation seem to understand being political only in terms of the nation-state, we are confronted by a radically different ‘Kingdom’ inaugurated by our triumphant ‘King.’  This is a kingdom that, as Jesus said to Pilate, is not from this world.  This is a kingdom that operates in an entirely different way in the here and now.  It is one where the first are last and the last are first.  It is one marked by selfless love for all within and without the church.

The Resurrection is, among other things, a call to be radically different.  It is a call to follow a new ‘King’ whose kingdom quite literally threatens all that most people, including ourselves, hold to be most important.  It is a call to be a political community - to be the Kingdom of God on earth - insofar as we as local communities within the Church become communities that truly demonstrate and be the selfless love that is God as manifested by Jesus Christ.  It means being radical communities that demonstrate to those around us an entirely other way of being together, of living together, of loving together.

What we cannot lose sight of as we praise Jesus' triumph as King is that he was, and through the Resurrection is, a truly radical King.

To understand concretely what this could look like, I recommend William Cavanaugh's book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Challenges in Contemporary Theology).  In this book, Cavanaugh describes the situation of the Catholic church in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and chronicles how the church came to understand a new way of being political - a way marked by the experience of Christ in the Eucharist.

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