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Triduum - Easter Vigil
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Liturgy of the Easter Vigil

 

When the first Christians celebrated their vigils on the evening after the Sabbath, they put in quality time.  We Catholics today get impatient after a couple of hours in church, but back then they would have just warmed up for the second round of songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord “whose mercy endures forever.”  Let us take a page from our Baptist neighbors.  On the night in which we commemorate our redemption and the victory of Jesus Christ over death and disgrace, we should be ready to stay a while and let loose with our affections.  Well prepared, motivated and charged readings of these key scripture passages can assist the process.

 

1. Genesis 1, 1 to 2, 2

  • I begin the liturgy of the word with the song of creation.  I notice its utter simplicity, repeating and soothing as waves breaking on the shore.  God gives the order and it is done.  Day passes, evening passes, and a new day begins.
  • By my third pass through the text, I begin to capture a sense of abundance.  God does nothing half-way.  There is a variety of stars, plants and animals, and the sea is teeming with creatures.
  • On my fifth pass-through I realize the abundance of water.  Our assembly, especially those to be baptized tonight, will sense that something is about to happen as a mighty wind swept over the waters.  God is in control.
  • On my seventh pass-through, it occurs to me: How do I know it took place like this?  Was anyone there to report it?  Has anyone seen God or known the mind of God?  Am I presuming to speak with more confidence than a teacher of evolution might address her class?  If I am, how did my confidence arise?  Every lector should answer this before continuing.
  • Perhaps I am not reporting events that my listeners may accept or reject on their merits.  But I am not a creationist, either!  I do not know with assurance whether it happened just this way.  And neither does anyone else.  I am handing on my faith, the faith of Jews and Christians, in the God who created all that is seen and unseen.  Although some of my listeners may consider my faith as na´ve, I trust that most of them will share it and reflect it back to me.
  • Central point: God speaks and it is done.  I repeat the command Let there be light, as I observe briefly the light of the paschal candle tonight.   
  • Climax: Humanity is the crown of creation, in our image, after our likeness.  Made in the image of God, male and female, different (not separate) but equally loved in the Elohistic account we are celebrating tonight.
  • Message for our assembly: Everything God does is wonderful, and it is right for our soul to sing, with each new wonder, the hymn “How great thou art.” 
  • I will challenge myself: To be present before God’s wonderful work, dancing like lady Wisdom, exulting in each new day.  I want to set the stage for our assembly, and especially our catechumens and candidates, to enjoy their life of faith.  May we all enjoy the creation much as God has done during the long Sabbath rest.

 

2. Genesis 22, 1-18

  • I remember the great test of Abraham’s faith, a story that every Jewish child knows by heart.  And I also remember that the first Christians adopted this story as they tried to understand why God’s beloved son Jesus died such a shameful death.  They found comfort in it, and I will offer such comfort to the assembly as I read.
  • This command Take your only son -- whom you love is awful, obscene, barbaric to our ears.  Could this be the same God we just finished celebrating, who rejoices in the creation and gives life?  After I have read through five or six times, I may begin to downplay the command, or soften its impact.  But I do no favor to my assembly if I try such a cover-up!  No, I will not imply that God is cruelly bluffing, but that God is serious and is really testing the faith of Abraham. 
  • Or maybe it is all in Abraham’s mind?  If I can speak in a way that suggests a vision or a dream (but not in caricature, as one might speak the words of Hamlet’s ghost), I could defend the God of love from our misunderstanding of God.
  • Father and son travel together to the mountain.  Isaac knows that they are offering sacrifice, just as we are tonight.  He has figured out what kind of sacrifice his father has in mind, because he asks in a disingenuous way: Where is the sheep for the holocaust?  And Abraham answers just as indirectly but with the most pregnant words of scripture: God will provide.  I will say them with emphasis, to touch the faith of my listeners, and allow us all to affirm our shared faith together.
  • But why would our God of mercy and abundant life wait until Abraham is about to slay his son?  I must confess that the interruption is not very convincing.  How does it fit into God’s unconditional promise?  I have never read this passage at a Vigil, but if I were to do it I would read it a dozen times searching for the God of love.  Again a vision may bail me out.  Let us say that God’s angel does not shout to Abraham but whispers deep enough into his soul to shake him from his resolve.  And let us say that Abraham takes a real look around and finally sees the ram that has been waiting for him all along.
  • Perhaps the story is more of a parable than a real experience of ancient humanity.  Better yet, perhaps it is meant to demonstrate how Abraham grows in understanding of who God is.  That is how I will use the visions.  I think of it as hard experience that has been interpreted in the light of God’s revelation.  The next reading about the liberation of the Hebrew children has the same features.  And that is how I will read it tonight.
  • Toward the end of my preparation, I remember Sarah.  Isaac was her son, too.  In Bill Moyers’ Genesis discussion group she was not forgotten.  Could I find a way to imply that Sarah was not consulted and must have been distraught?  The patriarchs of old made up their own minds and acted accordingly, but the stories in Genesis say that she was a strong-willed and jealous woman.
  • Climax: When God’s angel calls softly to Abraham to take his hand from Isaac, the spell of the sacrifice story is broken and we shift to a plane of respect for life.  Until this point in the story Abraham has felt himself to be in the right, but from now on he becomes aware that God is in the right.  Everyone who reads and listens to this passage knows that a shift is taking place.  I will make sure that we will not presume to accuse God of hypocrisy, cruel manipulation or sadism.  Instead, by my tone of voice I will insinuate that even God can get at the truth indirectly.  After all, God does not judge Abraham for attempted murder.  We hear instead a commendation for obedience (even if it is blind obedience).
  • Message for our assembly: Today more than ever we must not forget that, no matter how hard the way to life, God will provide.  Those are the words I want the people to remember when I am finished.
  • I will challenge myself: to defend before my assembly the goodness of God whom we celebrate as Creator of all life, and to make a clear connection between this story and the death of God’s beloved son on Golgotha.

 

3. Exodus 14, 15 to 15, 1

  • We have come to the second central reading of this night: the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt across the deep and threatening waters.  I will look attentively at our catechumens as I retell it.
  • For Jews it is the most dramatic escape narrative in their family history, the Tanach.  It may also be the first defining experience of their nationhood as retold and relived each Passover.  Christians both of Jewish and Gentile origin identified from the very beginning with the escape story, because it identified them as a people and because it symbolized their liberation from other worldly powers.  That is how I can share it with our assembly.
  • Once on a Vigil night I adopted the view of a radio correspondent describing a scene of popular liberation.  If the reading is a message of liberation it is also an apocalypse, a decisive judgment of God against the war-making powers of earth.  Both of these images appeal to me, as I hope they do to you.
  • I hear and repeat the constant reminder: Israel is traveling on dry land, safe from the destructive waters.  It echoes like a drumbeat of encouragement.  They pass through the waters, just as our catechumens will do when they undergo their initiation tonight.
  • In that role I spoke the words of the reading more rapidly and excitedly than I usually do.  I assume that my listeners are just as thrilled with the outcome of the day, the dramatic escape out of oppression
  • Tonight I am an unabashed partisan.  This is Israel’s story and many of the world’s downtrodden have taken heart from listening to it.  And I give credit where credit is due: by the Lord has this been done!
  • Central point: Moses repeats the battle cry several times, and so will I: The Lord receives glory… swept the sea… cast a glance upon the Egyptians… hurled the army into the sea… was fighting for them.
  • Message for our assembly: God takes sides for the lowly of the earth, the little people, an unknown nation.  And God takes the side of our church whenever we identify with the poor and lowly among us.
  • I will challenge myself: to harness my enthusiasm in the service of the assembly’s enthusiasm, and to reflect in my voice the victory that is ours together with Christ.
  • At the right time I will give the word to the cantor, who begins without pause the song of Miriam.  That is how we play it at Mother of Christ in our single bilingual Vigil liturgy.

 

4. Isaiah 54, 5-14

  • This reading mentions the word covenant only once but the sense of a covenant pervades it.  God promises fidelity to Israel, exiled in far-off Babylonia, as a bridegroom to his bride.  It is forever: my love shall never leave you.  And it is unconditional.  With enduring love I take pity on you.
  • The images are piled up one upon another.  There are precious stones, abundance of children, lasting peace.  There is even an echo of our baptism, when God swore never again! to flood the earth.
  • There is no reason for an emotional letdown in the assembly after the Exodus story.  In fact, people will want our assurance that God will act today as in earlier times.  There is a lyrical beauty in these verses that contrasts with the stark power of nature in Exodus.
  • Climax: God speaks in the center of the reading that my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken.  All the other promises and pledges before and after are an expression of this fact.  I build toward that center and when I have passed it I continue to look back to it.
  • Message for our assembly: The reading does not only apply to Israel in exile.  As a church we sometimes turn our minds and hearts away from God and his beloved son Jesus.  But God does not abandon us.  We are always invited to return: The Lord calls you back.
  • If a couple is to be married tonight, I can dedicate my reading to them and pray that they make their marriage in the image of God’s covenant.
  • I will challenge myself: once again, to defend God who is rich in enduring love and faithful to the promises. 

 

5. Isaiah 55, 1-11

  • More water, abundance of water, is laid before us immediately.  All you who are thirsty, come to the water!  Our catechumens may feel washed out by now, but we continue to fill them with the abundance God gives.
  • I look on this reading as the reverse side of the covenant God has made with us, the covenant Jesus has made in his blood.  God invites Israel to come to the feast and be filled with good things, eating well and delighting in rich fare.
  • The reading is entirely an oracle of the prophet, in the voice of God.  I remind the assembly that this covenant is not made in our image and to our expectations.
  • Central point: our ways are not God’s ways.  We are being introduced to a higher plane of existence.  And God delivers.  We only see the results when time has passed and the rain has time to water the earth and make it fruitful.  This summary point comes toward the end of the reading, and I must be attentive to it when it comes.
  • Message for our assembly: God has worked wonderful things through his son Jesus, just as he has spread the feast of this reading.  Let us come and take part, let us seek the Lord and call him.
  • I will challenge myself: In an evening of great abundance, I will make this feast so appetizing that my listeners will remember it.

 

6. Baruch 3, 9-15 and from 3, 32 to 4, 4

  • The prophet speaks of wisdom, who appeared on earth and moved among men, the book of the precepts of God. 
  • Here is the forgotten reading of the Vigil liturgy.  I daresay that even those who have read it on a Vigil night will forget its content and purpose before the year has passed.  There is no saving act that we commemorate, no tender image to please our senses, but only the exhortation of a teacher concerning the supreme Teaching.  There aren’t even any words about water, for goodness sake (though the catechumens may thank us for that).
  • And yet there are echoes of the creation here.  Remember that I would read the creation story as if I were Lady Wisdom, dancing and singing for joy.  I might make this reading a commentary on the God who created heaven and earth.  And more than a creator: a sustainer!  God dismisses and calls the light.  The stars at their posts shine and rejoice. 
  • All the Vigil readings call us back to our roots, as the people whom God has called to be his own, proud of our calling and full of gratitude.  Baruch gives us the most explicit call to return.
  • Central point: Baruch calls the people out of death, just as God does on this night, into the commandments of life.  Again we are invited to respond to God’s covenant with us with the choice of life: prudence, strength, understanding.
  • Message for our assembly: God is not the only one who knows that the creation is very good.  The creation itself is aware and gives the glory.  So should we respond to God’s goodness, in words such as “Joyful joyful we adore you” or “All creatures of our God and King.”
  • I will challenge myself: to make this reminder about divine Wisdom so memorable that my listeners will recall the wonders of creation.

 

7. Ezekiel 36, 16-28

  • The prophet gives an oracle of punishment and an oracle of return.  It was not happenstance that Israel was carried off to Babylon and it will not be happenstance that it will return to the land I gave your fathers.
  • God will sprinkle clean water on the people, and all of us will soon be sprinkled with water as we renew our baptismal vows.  I will remind the people of how that ceremony of cleansing fits into salvation history.
  • The God we hear in Ezekiel is not a drill sergeant, but neither do we hear a tender spouse in the tradition of Second Isaiah.  Ezekiel was a priest and he speaks like a high priest, seeking to vindicate his honor and to restore the purity of God’s house.  If the people defiled the land and profaned my holy name, God will act to prove my holiness.  He may not be my favorite prophet but he shows another side of God, closer perhaps to the Wholly Other than Isaiah knew how to portray.
  • He is the prophet of the return, of the dry bones that took muscles and flesh and received the call to be God’s people.  Though many of the people remained in Babylon and created a vibrant religious life there, we are very aware of the longing to return that Ezekiel expressed.  This promise of a new heart and a new spirit must have been music to their ears.
  • Climax: In the middle of the passage the prophet says that God will prove my holiness through you.  Though God is Wholly Other, the world will not recognize this except through the restoration of Israel.  In like manner, the world will not recognize the depth of God’s love except for the life and death of Christ.  Let me say that Israel is, in a way, a foreshadowing of Christ.
  • Message for our assembly: Nothing happens to us by random chance.  All of it fits God’s purpose, especially when God establishes us as a church.
  • I will challenge myself: to infuse this reading with the same covenant warmth that we heard from Second Isaiah, especially when I read about the return of Israel.

 

Epistle. Romans 6, 3-11

  • We were baptized into his death.  We have nearly reached the central point of our celebration tonight: the initiation of our catechumens into Christ and their reception into the church and especially our community. 
  • Now the Word of the Lord that we have celebrated so abundantly moves forward to be bathed more fully in the light of Jesus himself and his resurrection.  Think of a revival and a series of preachers warming up the congregation for the main speaker.  As we approach the Christ of the Gospel and of our baptism our joy should be building.  And I’m going to be ready to hold my own, with help from the Apostle.
  • Paul does not disappoint tonight.  He is rebuking those of his listeners who are still attracted to their former lives.  “We have left all of that behind!”  Death, burial, freedom from sin: Paul’s images could not be more radical or final. 
  • My role in it is that of a keynote speaker pointing the way to Christ.  Where he went so also we go, into a new life.  But far beyond a speaker merely identifying our party with our candidate for a single election, I call my assembly to follow our Savior and be one with him and God through our lives and our deaths.
  • I will emphasize the life change that this entails.  We become dead to sin but alive for God.  My voice makes a clear break here and rises to a new plane as I speak of our new life. 
  • I will take our assembly through the harrowing events of Christ’s passion and death in the words of the apostle: crucified with him, buried with him.  And with even more intensity I call to our minds his resurrection from the dead.  We are united with him through a like resurrection, living with him. 
  • Climax: The summing-up words dead to sin but alive for God that come at the end of the reading.  All the cleansing and rededication we sought during Lent and Holy Week is now upon us, and frees us for the struggle that lies ahead but in Christ Jesus.
  • The message for our assembly: The apostle’s lesson applies primarily to those of us who were baptized already.  The renewal we celebrate tonight, though at a lower emotional high than for the catechumens, is no less real.  I will make that clear by the way I take the word to the entire assembly, sweeping across it with my gaze from left to right.
  • I will challenge myself: to summarize and echo in my voice the readings that have preceded this one, including the passage of Israel through the sea, because they all lead to Christ over whom death has no more power.

 

Gospel.  Matthew 28, 1-10

  • My good news message to our assembly tonight is explicitly a good news message in itself, spoken by an angel to the faithful women at the tomb of Jesus.
  • All the evangelists begin their resurrection accounts with a proclamation at the tomb, very early on the first day of the week.  Matthew’s account seems to me the most majestic, because he brings all of nature (through the earthquake) and the heavenly creatures (an angel) to announce the event that seals our faith.
  • Matthew follows a pattern typical of other gospels.  The tomb of Jesus is opened, in this case by a wonder of nature.  A touch of shock in my voice should be enough to remind us of the power of an earthquake.
  • Next, a messenger tells the followers of Jesus that he is risen, he is not here.  The news is certainly good and I will bring out the certainty in the messenger’s voice, while I also voice the surprise and astonishment the women must have felt.
  • Finally the messenger orders them to tell the disciples the good news: that he has gone before you into Galilee and will meet you there.  By the way I look on our assembly I will make it clear that this order applies to everyone, including those being baptized tonight.
  • Central point: The resurrection of Jesus is a true event, not a human invention but a human conclusion in the light of faith.  What the women see at the tomb proves nothing; it is what they don’t see that is central to their lives.  I will remember the words of John that we will read next week: Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed. 
  • Message for our assembly: As we listen to the Gospel tonight we are also recipients of the angel’s message, ordered to pass it on to others, telling those we meet that Jesus is alive and with God.
  • I will challenge myself: To awaken the faith of our assembly in the risen Christ, so that we can gain a measure of the faith and enthusiasm of his first disciples.

 

Gospel (Cycle B) Mark 16, 1-8

  • My good news message to our assembly tonight is explicitly a good news message in itself, spoken by an angel to the faithful women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) at the tomb of Jesus.
  • Mark begins the resurrection narrative very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week.  This is the original account, and it seems to me the closest to our experience: They bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.  This is the only account in which anyone asks: Who will roll back the stone for us?
  • When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large.  Let me be ready to look up also, and then reflect their wonder in my own voice.
  • Next, a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe who tells them Do not be amazed!  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.  He has been risen, he is not here.  Every detail, including the right side, is essential.  No word of the Bible is wasted!  I will reflect the certainty in the messenger’s voice, and contrast it with the women who were utterly amazed.
  • Finally the messenger orders them to tell the disciples the good news: He is going before you to Galilee.  There you will see him.  By the way I look on our assembly I will make it clear that this order applies to everyone, including those being baptized tonight. 
  • Central point: The resurrection of Jesus is a true event, not a human invention but a human conclusion in the light of faith.  What the women see at the tomb proves nothing; it is what they don’t see that is central to their lives.  I will remember the words of John that we will read next week: Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed. 
  • Message for our assembly: As we listen to the Gospel tonight we are also recipients of the angel’s message, ordered to pass it on to others, telling those we meet that Jesus is alive and with God.  According to Mark, the women fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment.  Our tradition has prompted us to understand and tell the report to others with confidence.
  • I will challenge myself: To awaken the faith of our assembly in the risen Christ, so that we can gain a measure of the faith and enthusiasm of his first disciples.
 

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