THE PASCHAL VIGIL READINGS - HISTORY OF OUR SALVATION
Yesterday I was crucified with Christ; today I will be glorified with him. Yesterday I died with Christ; today I will return to life with him. Yesterday I was buried with Christ; today I will rise with him from the tomb. Let us then carry our first fruits to him who has suffered and risen for us let us offer ourselves; it is the most precious and dearest gift in the eyes of God. Gregory of Nanzianus. Sermon 1: On Easter, 3.
In Exodus we read (12.42) “the night when YHWH kept vigil to bring the Israelites out of Egypt must be kept as a vigil in honour of YHWH by all Israelites, for all generations.” The Passover as we know is commemorated at this time of the year by the Jews to commemorate their deliverance from slavery. So Easter is the time for Christians to commemorate their deliverance from slavery too. Our deliverance is more than being saved from the wrath of a Pharaoh but from the bondage of sin and death. No wonder then that St. Augustine claimed “how much more assiduously, … ought we to keep watch on this particular vigil. … God speaks to us in the readings of his holy word” (Ser. 219).
At the Passover meal the youngest male member of the family asks, “Why is this night so different from other nights?” Christians can also ask that same question at the Paschal Vigil. It is indeed the night when we celebrate our song of salvation.
The Paschal Vigil begins in darkness to remind us that without Christ’s resurrection we would still live in that darkness. The lighting of the fire symbolises not only light but also new life or strictly speaking a new creation. In the words of Paul, “It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ” (2Cor.4.6). the Paschal candle is carried into the church, and three times, the deacon will chant “the Light of Christ,” to which the people reply “Amen”.
The singing of the Exsultet in a darkened church is one of the most beautiful texts in our liturgies as it proclaims our salvation:
This is our passover feast,
when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
led them dry shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.
If you look closely at the words you will note how it follows the theme of the Exodus story proclaimed by faithful Jews.
As the pillar of cloud and of fire was for the Hebrews a sign of the glory and presence of Yahweh, so for us Christ is the sign, the Sacrament, of God's presence and of God's glory. "The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14). Christ is "the light of the world," the true light that gives light to everyone" (John 8.12, 1.9).
This is followed by the Liturgy of the Word. At its beginning the celebrant announces, “Let un now listen attentively to the word of God, recalling how he saved his people throughout history, and in the fullness of time, sent his own son to be our Redeemer.”
These readings are all read in darkness too, to remind us that the Old Testament had to completed with the New for salvation to dawn like the day-spring from on high..
The first Reading from Genesis 1.1-2.2
This is the Priestly account of creation. God is the giver of all life beginning when the Holy Spirit hovered over the water. The main points to note here
1.all creation, that is, that in the sea as well as on the land was made good or perfect.
2.God made light from darkness. There was light before God made the sun and stars etc. This is the way John contrasts light and darkness.
3.man is made in the image of God. So all creation is perfect in its original state.
More importantly that creation happened because God willed it to happen. Everything was made out of nothing. Theologically we owe everything to God. It was God’s purpose that man would live in harmony with Him and all of His creation, even though he has been given the mastery over all animals. So this world at one stage was perfect before man decided he knew better than God and disobeyed Him.
The Psalm reading from Ps. 104.
The response for this psalm is “Send forth your Spirit O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.” What we must remember once God created this world, He has never left it. The Holy Spirit is continually renewing and refreshing the whole of creation. Nothing is static. Those who try to live by the promptings of the Spirit, know that their lives are full of surprises in a way that the “springs gush forth in the valleys.”
The second reading from Genesis 22. 1-8.
With man sinning the way He did, what was God to do? The story of Noah and the ark tells of one solution, but after that God promises that He would never do that again. If God is to rescue man from his wickedness He once again has to the initiative. He singles out Abrham with whom he makes a covenant and promise. Abraham and his descendants would be the fathers of a great nation. In the “P” account the sign of keeping this covenant was circumcision. In due time when Abraham had a son by his wife, Sarah, Isaac was circumcised.
In this reading Abraham has been asked by God to sacrifice his only son. The two set out to make the sacrifice offering. When Abraham is about to slay his son, another sacrifice is provided in the form of a ram. The purpose of this account is to relate Abraham’s obedience to God. So he is the proto-type for Christ. And it is why he is prominent in John’s gospel as the figure that the Jews should have respected.
Paul takes us this theme in his letter to the Galatians, when he inferred that all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile, are the descendants of Abraham. He pointed out that the covenant with Abraham was made before the Law, and therefore the Law can never annul this promise and therefore it is still ratified by God. We are indeed the children of Abraham.
The second psalm reading from Psalm 16
This psalm is one of faith, just as Abraham had shown. Without you I am nothing for you “are my portion and cup.” It is you only who “will show me the path of life” that will bring me into everlasting happiness.
The third reading from Exodus 14.15-15.1.
The Israelites had found themselves in bondage under a new Pharaoh, and the Lord heard their cry and raised up Moses to be their deliverer. YHWH instructed him to confront the king for release but he refused. So various kinds of destruction took place and still he refused to relent. So on that crucial night all the first-born are to be slain to force Pharaoh’s hand. The Israelites were instructed to sprinkle blood on their doors so that the angel of death will pass over their houses. They are to eat their unblemished lam with bitter herbs hastily and flee.
This passage is the crux of the Passover story for Jews, and it also symbolises Christ’s and our Passover from death to life. For the Jews the Red or Reed Sea passage is their transitus, that is their crossing over from slavery to freedom, and from death to life It is a movement of deliverance from slavery through the shedding of blood, through water and a journey to the Promised Land by God's mercy. This Mosaic Exodus is a prototype in the history of salvation, which reaches its conclusion at Calvary and the Easter Garden. It is in the death and resurrection of Our Lord that lead to His transitus to the Father that fulfils the Old Testament Passover and the proclamation of the Prophets. For us our pass-over is in the waters of baptism where we die to sin and arise to new life in Christ.
The third psalm reading is Exodus 15.1-8, 17-18.
The responsorial psalm after this reading is that glorious song that was chanted after escaping from Pharaoh. It expresses their joy of being rescued. “I will sing to the Lord.” Even Pharaoh is not as powerful as you O Almighty God as You stretched out Your right hand and scattered our enemies and hurled the Egyptian chariots into the sea. “The Lord will reign for ever.”
The fourth reading from Isaiah 54. 1-11.
This joyful section emerges after the last of the Suffering Servant Songs. The Servant is personified as an individual who is led like a lamb to the slaughter, but offers no cry or resistance.
In the actual passage there are overtones with those covenants that YHWH had made with Noah and Abraham. However the Israelites had lived many years in exile as they refused to listen to God’s ways, those ways, especially enunciated by the prophets such as Jeremiah. In this exilic period God confesses that yes, there was a time, just a brief moment, when I did forsake you, but now “with great love … I take you back.” I remember what I promised Noah, that no more will I wipe out my people by flood or any other kind of natural disaster. From now onwards you have nothing to fear. I shall “be your husband …Does a man cast off his wife of his youth?”
So YHWH is reassuring that He will remain faithful to His chosen people and that they will be redeemed as they prepare to return to Jerusalem after Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians.
The fourth psalm reading is Psalm 30.
The Israelites knew “tears” in exile but “joy” came when the Lord delivered them. The Lord has done this because He loved them and had pity on them in their distress. As a result He has turned “our mourning into dancing.”
The fifth reading Isaiah 55.1-11
This passage continues from the previous, except this time a covenant making focuses on that as “promised to David.” What was that promise? That his house would rule for ever. Not only in Israel but across borders?? – a covenant for others too? Another emphasis in this passage is “the word that goes from my mouth”, something that will be prominent in John’s gospel in Christ.
God is drawing us all to the waters, and those who are thirsty will drink of this. Compare this with the woman of Samaria who came to draw water from the well, and was confronted by our Lord who told her that if she believed in Him she would never thirst again. This new exodus will be like a new creation, reminiscent of chapter 1 in Genesis.
The fifth psalm reading Isaiah 12.2-6.
God of course does draw us to the waters of salvation. He is indeed our salvation, strength and song. In His glorious deed we shall “sing and shout for joy” for our God is holy indeed.
When a baptism follows, this psalm is replaced by Psalm 51. In this psalm the catechumen seeks to be given “a pure heart”, and that the Holy Spirit will always abide within. God does not want sacrifices but rather “a humbled, contrite heart.”
The sixth reading Baruch 3.9-15, 32-.4.4.
This passage is a eulogy of Wisdom and is linked with the Torah. It opens with a beautiful prayer that is Deuteronomic, “Hear the commandments of life, O Israel.” This poem is yet another in that tradition of exilic writings that enquires, why have you forsaken “the fountain of wisdom?” As a result you are now in exile. The poem thus advocates to “Learn where there is wisdom” and where that can be found? It is found in “the book of the commandments of God.” God has thus given the Israelites Wisdom in the Torah. As only God knows the way to Wisdom or rather is Wisdom, His chosen race has been truly blessed. The poet therefore begs them to “walk toward the shining of her light.” The personification of wisdom will be revealed in the flesh in God’s Son.
The sixth psalm reading Psalm 19.
The precepts of the Lord are perfect; they are more desired than the purest gold, and sweeter than honey. Even the simple can understand the wisdom and truth therein contained. Above all they reveal that the holiness of God will abide for ever.
The seventh reading Ezekiel 36.16-17, 18-28.
God’s name is to be restored to honour is very much a theme of this prophet. Ezekiel is yet another exilic prophet who admonishes the Israelites although living in strange country for not being true to YHWH. They have not honoured my name, but rather have profaned it disgracefully by following idols.
Despite all this, I am going to return them to their promised land and cleanse them of every kind of defilement, not so much for their sake, but so my name can be restored. Sounding a bit like Jeremiah, Ezekiel announces that the Lord “shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh indeed.” The difference between Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is that the former spoke of writing the laws in one’s heart, but the latter insists that a new heart is needed. This is a radical new future for Israel. YHWH will make them obey. This way the Israelites will once again become my covenant people, and their land will be blessed. As we know this did not happen, the Israelites never accepted this covenant. Even when God sent His Son, as depicted in the parable of the vineyard, they were still rejecting the God who would save them. His radicalism was also too much.
The seventh psalm reading from Psalms 42 and 43.
These psalms have always had a close association with preparation for the Eucharist. “My soul is athirst for the living God.” In our thirsting let “your light and your truth” be our guide. Such thirsting will bring us “to the altar of God.”
These Old Testament readings are like tributaries that all flow into and make one great river. That river symbolises Our Lord Jesus Christ who has washed us clean by His blood. The old testament readings prepare us for the New Testament reading which is read under bright lights. The Gloria has been sung gloriously and with much rejoicing.
The New Testament reading Romans 6.3-11.
In our baptism we were buried with Christ and “joined Him in death” so that we could be raised with Him into new life. By being baptised into His death, also symbolises the death of our former self by nailing it to the tree. In this death it should mean that sin is finished. In His death Christ conquered the remaining evil – death. This means that death has no more power over us. Just as Christ’s life is with God so is ours.
The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 118
This is one of the Hallel psalms that are recited at the Passover. Its Alleluias form a framework for reciting God’s wonderful deeds in triumphing over all. Christ has become the corner-stone, which we know is the sure foundation for any building.
Augustine always said, that “we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.”
After the Gospel, follows Baptism and the renewal of our commitment to Christ as a child of God. The Letter to the Hebrews spoke of the baptized as those who have been "enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift." (6:4), whilst in Ephesians there is a fragment of one of the earliest Christian hymns, assuredly connected with baptism:
Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. (5.14). This is why the newly baptised receive their candle lit from the Paschal candle.
Hereafter the Eucharist continues, whereby we celebrate in the words of St. Paul, Christ’s death until His coming again. “Do this in remembrance of me” (1Cor. 11.25. The institution of the Eucharist and Calvary are intricately woven. The Last Supper has precisely the same meaning as the Passover meal. Remember all God's saving acts, and that God is saving us to-night. Or in the words of a Eucharistic hymn:
And now of Father, mindful of the love
That brought us, once for all, on Calvary’s tree,
And having with us him that pleads above,
We here present, we hear spread forth to thee,
That only offering perfect in thine eyes,
The one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.
And so we come, O draw us to thy feet
Most patient Saviour who canst love us still,
And by this food, so awful and so sweet,
Deliver us from every touch of ill:
In thine own service make us glad and free,
And grant us nevermore to part with thee. (William Bright)
We are now able to go out knowing that the Risen Lord is with us to tell others, “The Lord is risen.” He is risen indeed. We have now completed the Paschal Triduum that is not only an historical re-enactment of Our Lord's last days, but also our celebration of entering into Christ's self-offering victory over death and what that means for us in our journey to the Promised Land.