Apr 11, 2020: Easter Vigil in the Holy Night (A)

Introduction

The word “vigil” comes from the Latin word vigilia, which means “a watching” or “keeping watch.” In the language of the Church, this term is used to designate the day falling before a more or less prominent feast or solemnity. The vigil is a day that is set apart by the Church as a preparation for the greater day that follows it. In the early centuries of Christianity the faithful were accustomed to gather in or near a church on the evening preceding great feasts, there giving themselves to prayer, in honor of the mystery or saint who would be venerated on such feasts. The observance of a fast on the entire day before these feasts became part of the discipline of Christianity. It was in this way that Christian tradition was confirmed and perpetuated.

During the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday, we complete our reflections on the meaning of Passover.  On Holy Thursday, we saw that God is the one who passes over; on Good Friday, we recognized that Jesus is our Passover.

Today we ourselves are drawn into the mystery as we contemplate our own passing over.

There are seven Old Testament readings in the lectionary for Easter Vigil, although this may be reduced to two, one of which must be the third reading (Exodus 14).  These readings are intended to provide an overview of our entire salvation history.

1st Reading – Genesis 1:1 – 2:2

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss,
while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw how good the light was.
God then separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
Thus evening came, and morning followed—the first day.

Then God said,
“Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters,
to separate one body of water from the other.”
And so it happened:
God made the dome,
and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it.
God called the dome “the sky.”
Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.

Then God said,
“Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin,
so that the dry land may appear.”
And so it happened:
the water under the sky was gathered into its basin,
and the dry land appeared.
God called the dry land “the earth,” 
and the basin of the water he called “the sea.”
God saw how good it was.
Then God said,
“Let the earth bring forth vegetation:
every kind of plant that bears seed
and every kind of fruit tree on earth
that bears fruit with its seed in it.”
And so it happened:
the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed
and every kind of fruit tree on earth
that bears fruit with its seed in it.
God saw how good it was.
Evening came, and morning followed—the third day.

Then God said:
“Let there be lights in the dome of the sky,
to separate day from night.
Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years,
and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky,
to shed light upon the earth.”
And so it happened:
God made the two great lights,
the greater one to govern the day,
and the lesser one to govern the night;
and he made the stars.
God set them in the dome of the sky,
to shed light upon the earth,
to govern the day and the night,
and to separate the light from the darkness.
God saw how good it was.
Evening came, and morning followed—the fourth day.

Then God said,
“Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures,
and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky.”
And so it happened:
God created the great sea monsters
and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems,
and all kinds of winged birds.
God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying,
“Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas;
and let the birds multiply on the earth.”
Evening came, and morning followed—the fifth day.

Then God said,
“Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures:
cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds.”
And so it happened:
God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle,
and all kinds of creeping things of the earth.
God saw how good it was.
Then God said:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,
the birds of the air, and the cattle,
and over all the wild animals
and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”
God created man in his image;
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, saying:
“Be fertile and multiply;
fill the earth and subdue it.
Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air,
and all the living things that move on the earth.”
God also said:
“See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth
and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food;
and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air,
and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground,
I give all the green plants for food.”
And so it happened.
God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.
Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.
Since on the seventh day God was finished
with the work he had been doing,
he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.

The story of our relationship with God begins with creation.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Before creation, there was no shape to anything, and everything was empty.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

God created the universe and everything in it out of nothing, and he does so by the power of his word.

God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” Thus evening came, and morning followed—the first day.

On Day 1, God creates day and night.

Then God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.” And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome “the sky.” Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.

On Day 2, God creates the sky and water.

Notice how each act of creation begins with the phrase “then God said…” and ends with a temporal designation: “the first day,” “the second day,” and so on.

Then God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear.” And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land “the earth,” and the basin of the water he called “the sea.” God saw how good it was. Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it.” And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed—the third day.

On Day 3, God creates dry land and vegetation.

In Hebrew numerology, three is the number of completeness.  At the end of three days of God’s creative work, he has created a series of realms: sky, water, land.  There is no longer formlessness.

Then God said: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth.” And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.
Evening came, and morning followed—the fourth day.

On Day 4, God creates the sun, moon, and stars, which correspond with the creation of day and night on Day 1.

The very structure of the narrative speaks to the order, rhythm, interdependence, and care with which God creates.

Then God said, “Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky.” And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, “Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth.” Evening came, and morning followed—the fifth day.

On Day 5, God creates sea creatures and birds, which correspond with the creation of water and the sky on Day 2.

Note the effortlessness of each creative activity: it is all accomplished merely with God’s divine word.  He speaks and creation appears.  His word is deed.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds.” And so it happened: God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. God saw how good it was. Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.” God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” God also said: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.

On Day 6, God creates land animals and man, which corresponds with the dry land and vegetation created on Day 3.

The creation of humankind is the crown of God’s creative activity; when this is complete, God sees everything he had made as “very good.”

The woman and the man are the only creatures made after the image and likeness of God, a wondrous fact by itself. Being formed in the image and likeness of God endows every human being with an innate dignity and the potential to become a loving human being.

Note that man and woman are given the responsibility to manage (“subdue” and “have dominion”) the rest of creation as caretakers.

Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. 

At the end of this second set of three days, God has filled the realms he created — another round of completion.

Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.

On Day 7, God “creates” rest and sanctification.

In Hebrew numerology, seven is the number of perfection.  Only when all was completed and deemed “very good” did God rest.

2nd Reading – Genesis 22:1-18

God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said:
“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, 
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust 
on a height that I will point out to you.”
Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, 
took with him his son Isaac and two of his servants as well, 
and with the wood that he had cut for the holocaust, 
set out for the place of which God had told him.

On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar.
Then he said to his servants:
“Both of you stay here with the donkey, 
while the boy and I go on over yonder.
We will worship and then come back to you.”
Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the holocaust 
and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders, 
while he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham: 
“Father!” Isaac said.
“Yes, son,” he replied.
Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, 
but where is the sheep for the holocaust?”
“Son,” Abraham answered, 
“God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.”
Then the two continued going forward.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, 
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Next he tied up his son Isaac, 
and put him on top of the wood on the altar.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God, 
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about, 
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram 
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh; 
hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”

Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: 
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD, 
that because you acted as you did 
in not withholding from me your beloved son, 
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; 
your descendants shall take possession 
of the gates of their enemies, 
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing —
all this because you obeyed my command.”

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is the story of Abraham (1850 BC) coming to a realization that God is too loving to want child sacrifice.

Beginning in Chapter 12 of Genesis, we read that God called Abraham to leave his own country and to go to a land that God would show him. God entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham in which God promised Abraham land, protection, and descendants.

God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, “Abraham!”  

We are told from the outset that this is a test, an occasion to prove the quality of the man through some form of adversity.

“Here I am!” he replied.

Abraham’s response shows his total availability.

Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,

Isaac is the child of God’s promise of descendants to Abraham, whom Abraham’s wife, Sarah, bore later in life.

Isaac is possibly referenced as the “only son” because Ishmael and his mother have been sent away (Genesis 21:10) and are living in the desert of Beersheba (the northern Sinai peninsula).  It’s also possible that this reference merely points out Isaac’s status as uniquely precious, especially loved.

Regardless, it is clear that Isaac was the one upon whom Abraham’s future rested.

and go to the land of Moriah.

Moriah was a three-day journey away.  This would give Abraham plenty of time to consider the command he is about to be given and the opportunity to do it deliberately.

Also, Moriah is the mountain range that runs through present-day Israel. In 2 Chronicles 3:1, Moriah is identified as the mountain in Jerusalem where Solomon built the temple.

There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

A holocaust is a whole burned sacrifice.

Abraham lived in a polytheistic culture in which child sacrifice was routine. The expectation would be that Isaac, as the child who opened the womb, would be sacrificed.

Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him his son Isaac and two of his servants as well, and with the wood that he had cut for the holocaust, set out for the place of which God had told him.

Abraham sets out right away, indicating complete and immediate obedience.

On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar. 

As noted in the first reading, three is the number of completion.  The third day is the day of completion, the day of resurrection, the day of salvation. Some commentators see significance in the idea that Isaac has been dead in Abraham’s eyes ever since God has told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and on the third day, he will regain his life.

Then he said to his servants: “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder. We will worship and then come back to you.” Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the holocaust and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. 

Isaac is not a small boy, but a strong young man. Like Jesus, he carries the wood of his own sacrifice.

As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham: “Father!” Isaac said. “Yes, son,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” “Son,” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” Then the two continued going forward.

Abraham is not trying to trick Isaac; rather, he truly has handed everything over to God.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.  Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.  

Note that there is no mention of any struggle on Isaac’s part.  Could this mean that just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son, so too was Isaac willing to allow this to happen?

Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.  

From a human point of view, Abraham’s response is terrifying. His actions demonstrate his unquestioning obedience. Abraham is willing to do God’s will.

The economy of words and the absence of emotion in such a horrific scene are startling. However, the point of the story is not the death of Isaac.  Thus the author moves quickly past the description of the preparation for the killing which, both author and reader know, will not take place.

But the LORD’S messenger called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”

This is a test, and Abraham has passed.  His devotion (i.e., fear of God) is beyond reproach.  He has obeyed perfectly.

As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.

The ram was, in later times, the usual victim for a holocaust offering (Leviticus 1:10-13).

Hebrew legend says that one horn was cut off to free the ram and this became the first shofar (the trumpet used to call the people to prayer and to war).

So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son. 

The alacrity with which Abraham obediently responds to the first command is coupled with piety that is demonstrated here, in the decision to offer a ram as the sacrifice in place of his son.

Abraham’s profound insight that God is too loving to want child sacrifice would later be codified for the chosen people. They would sacrifice the firstfruits of their animals, but not human beings (Exodus 13:11).

Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh; hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”

Yahweh-yireh means “God will provide.”  The reference to “the LORD will see” means that the Lord will see to it, will provide.

Again the LORD’S messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD,

God is making a covenant with Abraham by swearing an oath, a covenant that is sealed with the sacrifice of the ram.  Since there is no one higher, he must swear by himself.

Very high expressions of God’s favor to Abraham are employed in this confirmation of the covenant with him, expressions exceeding any he had yet been blessed with.

that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son,

God recounts and emphasizes the details of Abraham’s obedience.

I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing – all this because you obeyed my command.”

In relinquishing his natural claim on the child of promise, Abraham has gained the blessing of a promise of more children than he can count.  God will not be outdone in generosity.

3rd Reading – Exodus 14:15-15:1

The LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?
Tell the Israelites to go forward.
And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea,
split the sea in two,
that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land.
But I will make the Egyptians so obstinate
that they will go in after them.
Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army, 
his chariots and charioteers.
The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, 
when I receive glory through Pharaoh 
and his chariots and charioteers.”

The angel of God, who had been leading Israel’s camp, 
now moved and went around behind them.
The column of cloud also, leaving the front,
took up its place behind them,
so that it came between the camp of the Egyptians
and that of Israel.
But the cloud now became dark, and thus the night passed 
without the rival camps coming any closer together
all night long.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, 
and the LORD swept the sea
with a strong east wind throughout the night
and so turned it into dry land.
When the water was thus divided, 
the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, 
with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.

The Egyptians followed in pursuit; 
all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them 
right into the midst of the sea.
In the night watch just before dawn 
the LORD cast through the column of the fiery cloud
upon the Egyptian force a glance that threw it into a panic; 
and he so clogged their chariot wheels
that they could hardly drive.
With that the Egyptians sounded the retreat before Israel, 
because the LORD was fighting for them against the Egyptians.

Then the LORD told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, 
that the water may flow back upon the Egyptians,
upon their chariots and their charioteers.”
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, 
and at dawn the sea flowed back to its normal depth.
The Egyptians were fleeing head on toward the sea, 
when the LORD hurled them into its midst.
As the water flowed back, 
it covered the chariots and the charioteers of Pharaoh’s whole army
which had followed the Israelites into the sea.
Not a single one of them escaped.
But the Israelites had marched on dry land
through the midst of the sea, 
with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel on that day
from the power of the Egyptians.
When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore 
and beheld the great power that the LORD
had shown against the Egyptians, 
they feared the LORD and believed in him and in his servant Moses.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.

Our third reading describes the parting of the sea that enabled the chosen people to escape from slavery in Egypt and return to the promised land (1250 BC).

Four generations of patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) lived in Canaan after God first led Abraham there. When there was a famine in Canaan the people went to Egypt to get food. They remained in Egypt over five hundred years, becoming slaves to the Egyptians. Then God called Moses to lead the people back to the land that God had promised Abraham.

The LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two, that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land. 

God gives specific directions to Moses — he is clearly in charge and responsible for what transpires.

But I will make the Egyptians so obstinate that they will go in after them. Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots and charioteers. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I receive glory through Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers.”

While this narrative may appear to be an account of the struggle between the people of Israel and the Egyptian pharaoh, it’s really a battle between divine forces.  The pharaoh, thought by his people to be a god, is in mortal combat with the God of Israel, and it is the God of Israel who will emerge triumphant.  Hence God’s assertion that he will receive glory through Pharaoh and the Egyptians shall know that he is Lord.

The angel of God, who had been leading Israel’s camp, now moved and went around behind them. 

The angel leads the people to the sea and then moves behind them to protect the Israelites from the enemy.

The column of cloud also, leaving the front, took up its place behind them, so that it came between the camp of the Egyptians and that of Israel. 

As the Israelites fled, God led them in the form of a column of cloud, which had a fire in the center and was surrounded by smoke.

Here, the cloud (i.e., the presence of God), like the angel, also moves to the rear of the company.

But the cloud now became dark,

The light from the fire in the center of the cloud ordinarily guided the Israelites at night.  Now it would be a help to the Egyptians, so it goes dark.  The resulting obscurity serves as a shield.

and thus the night passed without the rival camps coming any closer together all night long.

Together, the angel and the cloud serve as a buffer between the fleeing Israelites and the pursuing Egyptians.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land. When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.

To the ancients, the waters of the sea represented chaos.  As in the story of creation, God shows his absolute dominion over the chaos by subduing it and conforming it to his will.

The Egyptians followed in pursuit; all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them right into the midst of the sea. In the night watch just before dawn the LORD cast through the column of the fiery cloud upon the Egyptian force a glance that threw it into a panic; and he so clogged their chariot wheels that they could hardly drive. With that the Egyptians sounded the retreat before Israel, because the LORD was fighting for them against the Egyptians.

The Egyptians also represent a form of chaos, albeit a political one.

Then the LORD told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may flow back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and their charioteers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea flowed back to its normal depth. The Egyptians were fleeing head on toward the sea, when the LORD hurled them into its midst. As the water flowed back, it covered the chariots and the charioteers of Pharaoh’s whole army which had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not a single one of them escaped. But the Israelites had marched on dry land through the midst of the sea, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.

In the ancient world, being cast into the sea would have been a terrifying fate, and the fact that the Israelites marched through it “on dry land” would have been a display of God’s power and favor beyond comprehension.

Thus the LORD saved Israel on that day from the power of the Egyptians. When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and beheld the great power that the LORD had shown against the Egyptians, they feared the LORD and believed in him and in his servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.

The jubilation that follows this victory is not so much due to the death of the Egyptians as because of the victory of God over the forces of chaos and tyranny.

The Exodus was a profound experience of God’s power and God’s fidelity for the Israelites as a whole. All of the stories that we have in the Old Testament, even those that precede the Exodus, are told from a post-Exodus point of view.

Who could ever doubt a God that would act so powerfully on behalf of his chosen people?

4th Reading – Isaiah 54:5-14

The One who has become your husband is your Maker;
his name is the LORD of hosts;
your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
called God of all the earth.
The LORD calls you back,
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
a wife married in youth and then cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great tenderness I will take you back.
In an outburst of wrath, for a moment
I hid my face from you;
but with enduring love I take pity on you,
says the LORD, your redeemer.
This is for me like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah
should never again deluge the earth;
so I have sworn not to be angry with you,
or to rebuke you.
Though the mountains leave their place
and the hills be shaken,
my love shall never leave you
nor my covenant of peace be shaken,
says the LORD, who has mercy on you.
O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled,
I lay your pavements in carnelians,
and your foundations in sapphires;
I will make your battlements of rubies,
your gates of carbuncles,
and all your walls of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the LORD,
and great shall be the peace of your children.
In justice shall you be established,
far from the fear of oppression,
where destruction cannot come near you.

Our reading from Isaiah is from the part of the book called Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55), where the prophet is offering hope to the Israelites while they were in exile in Babylon (587-537 BC). The period of the exile was the second most traumatic time in the history of Israel, second only to the time of slavery in Egypt.

The people believed that God had promised to protect them. When they lost their land, their king, and their temple, they began to doubt their whole understanding of their covenant relationship with God. Were they still God’s people or not?

The One who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the LORD of hosts;

Isaiah assures them that they still belong to God, using the metaphor of marriage to characterize the covenant bond that exists between God and his people.  God’s love is intimate, like the love between spouses.

your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth. The LORD calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, a wife married in youth and then cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back.

Continuing with the marriage theme, God’s love and wrath are portrayed in terms of a marriage bond that was established, then violated, and finally reestablished.  God is a loyal but dishonored husband and Israel is an unfaithful wife.

In an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with enduring love I take pity on you, says the LORD, your redeemer. 

God addresses his unfaithful spouse with tenderness and forgiveness.

Expanding the use of metaphorical familial relationships to motherly love, the word for “pity” comes from the word ráham (womb), and might be translated as “womb-love.”  It refers to a deep and loving attachment, usually between two people who share some kind of natural bond — a phenomenal suggestion for the relationship between an almighty God and a sinful people.

The word for “enduring love” is hesed, which denotes loyalty to covenant obligations.  God is faithful to the covenant, even when his people are not.

This is for me like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah should never again deluge the earth; so I have sworn not to be angry with you, or to rebuke you. 

This specifically calls to mind Genesis 6:6, when God’s heart was grieved when he saw how wicked human beings had become.  God destroyed them with the flood, but in Genesis 8:21-22, God seems to regret having done this, and promised Noah to never again destroy all living creatures.

Combined with the covenant image of verse 5, this passage also calls to mind the book of Hosea in which God does not cast off his beloved despite her repeated acts of adultery.

Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you 

As before, hesed is translated as love.

nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the LORD, who has mercy on you.

Through the prophet, God assures the people that their covenant is still intact. This would have been a tremendous source of comfort and relief to an exiled people.

The term for “mercy” is translated from the word for womb-love, as before.  There is an aspect of forgiveness in the very use of such an intimate word.

O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled, I lay your pavements in carnelians, and your foundations in sapphires; I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of carbuncles, and all your walls of precious stones.

Jerusalem, the bride of God, is described as a city adorned in precious jewels. This splendor emanates from the forgiveness and presence of the Lord.

All your sons shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. In justice shall you be established, far from the fear of oppression, where destruction cannot come near you.

God promises that he himself will attend to the education and protection of future generations.  These promises are extremely precious to a people in their low condition, that God would not only continue his love to his people under their troubles as before, but that he would restore them to their former prosperity — and not only that, he would raise them to greater prosperity than any they had yet enjoyed.

5th Reading – Isaiah 55:1-11

Thus says the LORD:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully,
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

In our fifth reading, which is also from Second Isaiah, the prophet continues to comfort the people and assure them that their covenant relationship with God still exists. This powerful oracle contains some of the most moving sentiments placed in the mouth of God.

Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!

God is cast in the role of a vendor who offers food and drink at no cost.

The generosity of God is seen in the offer of water, grain, wine, and milk. While water is essential to all, it is particularly important in the climate of Mediterranean Palestine. Grain, wine, and milk are staples of the Near Eastern diet and imply abundant harvests and healthy flocks.

Note that the invitation is extended both to those who are able to pay and to those who are not. All are invited to come to the Lord in order to be refreshed and nourished.

Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?

What God has to offer is satisfying and will be long-lasting compared to all else for which people seem to spend their money.

Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

The prophet is referring to more than ordinary food and drink, because the word used for “listen” is shāma.  This is the same verb that introduces Israel’s most important prayer, which is known by the same word:  Shāma!, or Hear, O Israel!  The word suggests not only hearing but also heeding the words that are heard.

The implication is that the word of God is itself a source of nourishment and rejuvenation.  It is, in fact, the source of life itself.

I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.

The real object of the invitation is the renewal of their covenant bond.  Not only that, he is bestowing on all the people the role once personified by David (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

The royal covenant with David was a unilateral covenant, a free gift from God with no requirements placed on the human partner. However, that covenantal privilege did not exempt the kings from observance of the Law, which was associated with the Mosaic covenant. Though it was instituted as an everlasting covenant, the people broke the bond by their sins.

God is now eager to restore this severed bond.

As I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of nations, so shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

Just as David’s success proclaimed God’s majesty to the nations, so the people will be a witness to God’s mercy and love.  Just as David was the source of blessing, peace, and fullness of life for his own nation, the people will be a comparable source of blessing for nations they do not even know.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.

Israel must turn to God with urgent prayer. Man must seek God, and yet God’s ways are far beyond comprehension. This reading combines the mysterious opposites of divine grace: God is transcendent, yet near enough to help; man is helpless, yet required to act energetically; the ways of God are exalted yet required of man (see also Hosea 14:10; Job 42:1-6; Sirach 43:28-35; Acts 13:10).

Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts;

The prophet describes a pattern of sin, not merely isolated offenses. The people have embarked on a “way” (derek) of life that has taken them away from the God with whom they have entered into covenant. This is nothing short of total betrayal.

The word employed here for sinfulness usually refers to external behavior, but here it is coupled with the word for “thoughts” or “plans” (mahăshābâ). The sinners have not only chosen a course of action opposed to the laws of God, but they have devised plans contrary to God’s plans.

Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

The word for “turn” (shûb), in all its forms, is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the First Testament. It means “to turn from evil and to turn toward the good,” implying that those who have sinned were once in relationship with God but have turned away.

The exhortations to turn back are not merely suggestions — the verb-forms indicate they are imperatives. The people are summoned to worship and repentance.

In the face of this, the prophet assures them God will still be compassionate (rāham) toward them. He can promise this because he firmly believes that God does not merely forgive once. Rather, God is gracious in forgiving, pardoning sinners again and again.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

The difference between the thoughts and plans of God and those of the wicked are next compared with the vast expanse between the heavens and the earth. The comparison is ludicrous, for there is no comparison.  The difference between the disposition of sinful men and the disposition of God is incalculable.

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

The passage ends with God assuring the people of the power of his word.

In so doing, Isaiah provides a glimpse of what ecologists today call the hydrologic cycle — continuous movement of water between the earth and the atmosphere.  His knowledge of this cycle comes from observing nature itself, the primary source of wisdom.  Rain and snow originate in the heavens; they water the earth, making it fertile and then they return to the heavens, having accomplished their purpose.

This observation lays bare several characteristics of the integrity of creation.  The first is the interrelationship that exists between the various spheres.  Without water, the earth would not be fertile; without the fruits of the earth, human beings would not have food to eat.  A second characteristic, not expressed but presumed, is the consistency of the workings of the natural world.  There an order persists that is reliable, an order we can trust.  Finally, contrary to anthropocentric arrogance, it is clear that humans are totally dependent on the fertility of the natural world and the laws that govern it.  These three characteristics constitute the tenor of the metaphor: the features that belong to the natural world apply to word of God.

Speaking through the prophet, God declares: So it is with my word!  A cause-and-effect relationship exists between the word of God and the outcome it accomplishes; the word of God is consistent and reliable, and humans are totally dependent on it.  We are assured that we can be as confident of this as we can be of the working of the natural world.  Just as nature produces miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can survive, so the word of God will effect miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can live.

6th Reading – Baruch 3:9-15,35-4:4

Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life:
listen, and know prudence!
How is it, Israel,
that you are in the land of your foes,
grown old in a foreign land,
defiled with the dead,
accounted with those destined for the netherworld?
You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom!
Had you walked in the way of God,
you would have dwelt in enduring peace.
Learn where prudence is,
where strength, where understanding;
that you may know also
where are length of days, and life,
where light of the eyes, and peace.
Who has found the place of wisdom,
who has entered into her treasuries?

The One who knows all things knows her;
he has probed her by his knowledge—
The One who established the earth for all time,
and filled it with four-footed beasts;
he who dismisses the light, and it departs,
calls it, and it obeys him trembling;
before whom the stars at their posts
shine and rejoice;
when he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!”
shining with joy for their Maker.
Such is our God;
no other is to be compared to him:
He has traced out the whole way of understanding,
and has given her to Jacob, his servant,
to Israel, his beloved son.

Since then she has appeared on earth,
and moved among people.
She is the book of the precepts of God,
the law that endures forever;
all who cling to her will live,
but those will die who forsake her.
Turn, O Jacob, and receive her:
walk by her light toward splendor.
Give not your glory to another,
your privileges to an alien race.
Blessed are we, O Israel;
for what pleases God is known to us!

The book of Baruch was written about 150 BC by an Israelite who did not live in the promised land but who was completely faithful to the tradition of his ancestors. By meditating on the Babylonian exile and its meaning, the author is teaching people like himself who are separated from their homeland to live in fidelity to their traditions.

Today the exiles are called to repent of their past sins and live a life of wisdom.

Hear, O Israel, 

The passage begins with the characteristic summons: “Hear, O Israel!”

Commandments that give life (i.e., prosperity of every kind) when they are observed (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

the commandments of life: listen, and know prudence!

Those who abide by this message will receive blessings in the form of prudence and prosperity in life.

How is it, Israel, that you are in the land of your foes, grown old in a foreign land, defiled with the dead, accounted with those destined for the nether world? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom!

The reason for the nation’s exile in the land of its foes is given: basically, it was because the people had turned from God, the fountain who gives wisdom (Jeremiah 2:13; John 4:13-14).

The Jews in the diaspora were defiled by association with pagans, who — because they did not know and observe the law — were considered all but dead and ready to depart to the netherworld.  According to Jewish law, contact with a corpse defiled a person (Numbers 19:11-16).

Had you walked in the way of God, you would have dwelt in enduring peace. Learn where prudence is, where strength, where understanding; that you may know also where are length of days, and life, where light of the eyes, and peace. Who has found the place of wisdom, who has entered into her treasuries?

The mysterious female figure that appears in these verses is more than a wise woman; she is Wisdom itself.

This representation of Wisdom should not be considered a figure of speech.  While many passages maintain that one of the chief characteristics of God is divine wisdom, the image found here suggests more.  Wisdom Woman appears to enjoy an existence intimately associated with, yet clearly distinct from, God.

The One who knows all things knows her; he has probed her by his knowledge— The One who established the earth for all time, and filled it with four-footed beasts; he who dismisses the light, and it departs, calls it, and it obeys him trembling; before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice; when he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker.

In answer to the question of where Wisdom can be found, the poet sketches an account of primordial creation.

The light is the sun. Sunset and sunrise are presented as the personified sun obeying God’s commands. The stars are like sentries keeping watch during the night.

Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him: He has traced out all the way of understanding,

The way of understanding is the way to Wisdom.

and has given her to Jacob, his servant, to Israel, his beloved son.

Although Wisdom is inaccessible to all but God, she is given by God to Israel.

Since then she has appeared on earth, and moved among men. She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever;

Because Wisdom is the way of God, she is also identified with the law.

All who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her. Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor. 

Ultimately, the way of Wisdom is conformity to the law, and conformity to the law is the way to life.

Give not your glory to another, your privileges to an alien race.

The exiles are encouraged to remain faithful to Wisdom despite the fact that they live in another culture.

Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!

There is no greater gift than the gift of revelation. Through God’s gracious act, we have been taught what the Lord would have us do.

As we heard in the first reading, we are made in the image of a loving God. God wants us to learn to act lovingly in every situation. Learning wisdom will help us live as God would have us live; those who follow this way will be truly happy.

7th Reading – Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28

The word of the LORD came to me, saying: 
Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their land, 
they defiled it by their conduct and deeds.
Therefore I poured out my fury upon them 
because of the blood that they poured out on the ground, 
and because they defiled it with idols.
I scattered them among the nations, 
dispersing them over foreign lands; 
according to their conduct and deeds I judged them.
But when they came among the nations wherever they came, 
they served to profane my holy name, 
because it was said of them: “These are the people of the LORD,
yet they had to leave their land.”
So I have relented because of my holy name 
which the house of Israel profaned 
among the nations where they came.
Therefore say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord GOD: 
Not for your sakes do I act, house of Israel, 
but for the sake of my holy name, 
which you profaned among the nations to which you came.
I will prove the holiness of my great name, profaned among the nations, 
in whose midst you have profaned it.
Thus the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, 
when in their sight I prove my holiness through you.
For I will take you away from among the nations, 
gather you from all the foreign lands, 
and bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities, 
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, 
taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts.
I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, 
careful to observe my decrees.
You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; 
you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Ezekiel was a prophet in Babylon during the exile. In today’s seventh reading, Ezekiel is assuring the people that God will restore them to the promised land.

In this seventh reading, , but because of God’s grace, they will have an inner change in the human heart and spirit and be restored.

The word of the LORD came to me, saying: Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their land, they defiled it by their conduct and deeds. Therefore I poured out my fury upon them because of the blood that they poured out on the ground, and because they defiled it with idols. I scattered them among the nations, dispersing them over foreign lands; according to their conduct and deeds I judged them. 

The prophet Ezekiel describes how the Israelites brought on their own downfall through violent and idolatrous sinfulness. Their conduct polluted the land, and so they were expelled.

But when they came among the nations wherever they came, they served to profane my holy name, because it was said of them: “These are the people of the LORD, yet they had to leave their land.”

What is more despicable, according to the prophet, is that their shameful behavior and corresponding punishment doubly dishonored the name of God.  For what respect can be given to a God who cannot even protect his people on his own land?

So I have relented because of my holy name which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they came.

The people have forgotten the covenant (see Romans 2:22), but God acts to prevent this ridicule of his name by relenting and giving them another chance. The argument is similar to the episodes of Moses with God in Numbers 14:13-19 and Exodus 32:10-11.

Therefore say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord GOD: Not for your sakes do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you profaned among the nations to which you came. I will prove the holiness of my great name, profaned among the nations, in whose midst you have profaned it. Thus the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when in their sight I prove my holiness through you. 

The renown of God’s holy name among the nations is clearly an important theme in this reading.  The spectacular events of Israel’s initial election and the prosperity with which the nation was subsequently blessed should have been a witness to the surrounding nations of the unbounded generosity of God.

For I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land. 

Because the people failed to give glory to God, God decides to re-create the nation and restore them to the promised land, doing so in a way that the name of the God of Israel would be synonymous with mercy and compassion.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

The regeneration of the nation is accomplished in several steps.  The first is a ritual of cleansing.  The people have polluted themselves, and so God washes them with clean water, a symbolic action that represents the inner cleansing that takes place.

Note that God must cleanse man, man cannot cleanse himself: a foreshadowing of baptism.

I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. 

Next, God takes away their hard hearts and gives them tender hearts, and gives them a new spirit which is God’s own spirit.  This new heart and new spirit will transform the inner being of the people, enabling them to live lives of integrity.

You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Having brought them back from exile, forgiven them, and filled them with his spirit, God echoes the covenant formula found in Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 31:33; Ezekiel 14:11; 37:23, 27; Hosea 2:23; Zechariah 8:8; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10; Revelation 21:3:  “I will be your father and you will be my children.”

8th Reading – Romans 6:3-11

Brothers and sisters:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus 
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, 
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead 
by the glory of the Father, 
we too might live in newness of life.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, 
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him, 
so that our sinful body might be done away with, 
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.

In our epistle reading, Paul explains how baptism has enabled Christians to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

The baptism ritual itself is the reenactment of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Christians were plunged into the water, they were buried with Christ in death; as they emerged from the water, they rose with him into new life.

“Paul says this so that we might know that once we have been baptized we should no longer sin, since when we are baptized we die with Christ. This is what it means to be baptized into His death. For there all our sins die, so that, renewed by the death we have cast off, we might be seen to rise as those who have been born again to new life, so that just as Christ died to sin and rose again, so through baptism we might also have the hope of resurrection. Therefore, baptism is the death of sin so that a new birth might follow, which, although the body remains, nevertheless renews us in our soul and buries all our old evil
deeds.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 6:3]

We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead 

This rite of initiation does not merely identify the Christian with the resurrected Christ who has won victory over sin, but introduces him/her into the very act by which that victory was won.

by the glory of the Father, 

The efficacy of the resurrection is ascribed to the Father, specifically to his glory. As in the Old Testament exodus where miracles were ascribed to Yahweh’s glory, so too is the raising of Christ.

we too might live in newness of life.

Literally, “may walk in newness of life.” “To walk” is a favorite expression of Paul, borrowed from the Old Testament (2 Kings 20:3; Proverbs 8:20), to designate the conscious ethical conduct of the Christian.

Paul’s real intent in drawing these lines of comparison between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the baptism and new life of Christians is ethical exhortation.  He seeks to encourage them to set aside their old manner of living and to take on the new life of holiness.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.

Note the future tense. Baptism identifies us not only with Christ’s act of dying but also with his rising; even to a share in the divine inheritance.

We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.

Paul characterizes their former lives as slavery to sin.  This old enslaved self has to be crucified.

For a dead person has been absolved from sin.

This could mean that from the standpoint of the law, a dead person is absolved or acquitted since sin no longer has a claim against them, or that the person who has died has lost the very means of sinning. In either case, a change in status has ensued: the old condition has ended and a new one has begun.

If, then, we have died with Christ,

i.e., been baptized

we believe that we shall also live with him.

A condition that is not the object of sensible perception or immediate consciousness, it is perceived only with the eyes of faith.

We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. 

Just as death had no power over the resurrected Christ, so sin would have no power over the baptized Christian.

As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;

His death was a unique event, never to be repeated.

“Paul is saying that if Christ had died for sinners two or three times, there would be no danger in going back to our old sinful ways. But as He only died once, we who have been buried and risen again with him will not die to sin again. There will be no second baptism, no second death of Christ. Therefore we must be careful to stay alive.” [Diodore of Tarsus (ca. A.D. 373), Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church]

as to his life, he lives for God. 

Through death, Christ entered into his glory where time has no dominion. He is continually offering himself to the Father on our behalf (see Revelation 5:6) so that all generations are freed.

Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.

Through baptism, Christians now have the power of the resurrected Lord to withstand the assaults of sin.

Just as it was necessary for Christ to pass through death to rise to eternal life, so it is necessary for Christians to die to self, to die to sin in order to rise with Christ. Having done so, Christians no longer live for themselves, they live for God in Christ.

On this most holy of all nights, as we welcome the newly baptized into the body of Christ and renew our own baptismal vows, we pray that we may accept the great gift we have received and become faithful witnesses of the risen Christ to all nations in everything we say and do.

Gospel – Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.
And behold, there was a great earthquake; 
for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, 
approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
His appearance was like lightning
and his clothing was white as snow.
The guards were shaken with fear of him
and became like dead men.
Then the angel said to the women in reply,
“Do not be afraid!
I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.
Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
‘He has been raised from the dead, 
and he is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him.’
Behold, I have told you.”
Then they went away quickly from the tomb, 
fearful yet overjoyed,
and ran to announce this to his disciples.
And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them.
They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.
Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee,
and there they will see me.”

None of the gospels give a narrative account of Jesus rising from the dead. However, by telling us empty tomb stories and postresurrection appearance stories, every gospel claims the resurrection occurred.

Tonight, at the Easter Vigil, in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we read Matthew’s empty tomb story. Our reading actually continues from where the account of the Passion on Palm Sunday left us, one week ago.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,

The first Easter Sunday. A luminous event begins in the predawn darkness.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.

The same two women who had watched the tomb after it had been sealed in Matthew 27:61.  The “other Mary” was probably the mother of James (see Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10).  They have no idea that they are about to become the first witnesses to the most important event in the history of the world.

And behold, there was a great earthquake;

Once again there is an earthquake. Recall that Matthew also pictured an earthquake at Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51b-53). This is Matthew’s way of alerting the reader to the earth-shattering importance of what he is describing. Jesus’ death and resurrection have changed everything. Death is no longer death — not just for Jesus, but for other human beings as well.

for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow.

Heaven intervenes: an angel descends and rolls back the stone. He does so not to let the risen Jesus out, but to let the women see that the tomb is empty.

The brilliance of his appearance resembles the appearance of Jesus at the time of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:2).

The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.

The mere sight of the angel throws the Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb into a state of shock.

Encounters with angels are often described in scripture as terrifying.  This is likely due to some combination of the supernatural character of the event, anxiety about what the angel’s purpose might be, or the appearance of the angels themselves.

Note the irony: the very ones who were supposed to be guarding the tomb of a dead man have now become “like dead men” themselves, while the body of the crucified Christ has risen.

Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! 

The women are reassured with words meant to dispel their anxiety: Do not be afraid!

I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

The angel then tells the women the significance of what they are seeing.  He reminds them of Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection and invites them to examine the just-opened, yet empty, tomb.

Throughout his gospel, Matthew has constantly pointed out that Jesus’ ministry has fulfilled the words of the prophets. Now Matthew has the angel state that Jesus’ resurrection has fulfilled his own words. This “fulfillment” theme is Matthew’s way of teaching that the events that are taking place are a fulfillment of God’s promises and God’s will.

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”

It was to these women that the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection was first announced: He is raised; he is living!  However, the words of the heavenly messenger are more than just a proclamation of the resurrection; it also includes a commission instructing the women to announce this wondrous event to Jesus’ disciples and to direct them to go to Galilee to meet their risen Lord.

It is very significant that the women are to be witnesses of the resurrection to the apostles because, in rabbinic law, the testimony of women did not bear weight. However, the witness of these women becomes the foundation of the resurrection proclamation.

Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples.

In Matthew’s gospel, the women are completely responsive.

And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them.

The women’s realization of the resurrection reaches a climax: as they hasten to obey the commission given them, they encounter Jesus.

They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.

A powerful moment: The truth of the resurrection is now confirmed.

In many postresurrection appearance stories, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him. This is not true here: not only do they recognize him, they pay him the homage accorded a deity.  The only way they can respond to the resurrected Jesus is to fall down at his feet and worship him.

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

His message and instructions are the same as given by the angel, except for one small but important detail: he refers to the apostles as “my brethren.”

Upon hearing that Jesus has risen from the dead, the apostles would undoubtedly feel shame and remorse at the fact that they had deserted him. This message from Jesus assures them of forgiveness, something that will become more clear when Christ appears to them for the first time later that day.

While the reason for assembling in Galilee is not given, it is likely intended to direct the ministry back to where it all began.  This brings everything to completion and provides the apostles a fresh start.

This gospel reading teaches us that Jesus has overcome death, not only for himself, but for us too, and that Jesus offers forgiveness to his brothers and sisters, even those who have deserted him in the past. On hearing this good news, we, like the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, are overjoyed. This tremendous joy should compel us to announce this good news to others!

Connections and Themes

Holy Saturday is a time of liminality — we are no longer is one place, but we have not yet arrived at the other.  We are in the crossing.  We are moving from darkness into light.

The mystery of Easter.   The mystery of Easter is found in the mission of the Son of God, who descended into our humanity in order to heal us and raise us up to share in his divinity.  In the Incarnation, the Almighty God descended to earth and became a man, entering the broken human family.  Throughout his public ministry, the all-holy Son of God continued to lower himself, journeying to the darkest corners of Israel.  He did not stay in the temple with the religious elite but associated with lepers, the sick, prostitutes, and other sinners.  By speaking with them, touching them, and sharing meals with them, Jesus united himself to the outcasts of first-century Judaism.  Meeting them at their lowest points, he healed them, forgave them, and restored them to the Father.

The descent of God is seen especially on Good Friday.  At the cross, we encounter most vividly the mystery of the God who relentlessly seeks his people who have turned away.  At Calvary, we see Jesus descend into the depths of our sufferings, sinfulness, and estrangement from the Father.  And it is precisely at that point that he finds us.

By meeting us at the lowest point of our existence, the Son of God, who is perfectly united to the Father, is able to transform our weak, fallen humanity and lift it up with him in his resurrection.  The all-holy Son of God unites himself to our utter brokenness on Good Friday so that he can raise us up with him on Easter Sunday.  In the Resurrection, Jesus offers the fallen human family a restored relationship with the Father, with a peace that far surpasses human understanding.

The passage through water.  The vigil readings recount our journey from darkness into light, from the chaotic waters of creation to the saving waters of baptism.  We begin at the dawn of creation, when God separated the waters and called light out of the darkness, ordered the world and made it pulsing with life.  The unfathomable nature of the trust that is exacted of us as we embark on and remain faithful to this journey is seen in the test to which Abraham is put.  In order to embrace the new life that God has planned for us, we must be willing to relinquish all that we hold dear in this life.  This includes all our hopes and dreams and even that upon which we have based our future.  God must be our hope and our dream; God must be the foundation of our future.

In the dark of the night we must be willing to follow God into the unknown.  If we can do this, if we can risk all and leave behind the life to which we have grown accustomed, we will be able to survive in this period of liminality.  All we need to sustain us at this time is the confidence of knowing that God, who is our redeemer, loves us with indescribable passion.  Secure in this love, we will be able to turn to God for all that we need.  Embraced by God’s everlasting covenant, we believe that we are being led to a land that is abundantly fertile and secure from all that might harm us.  It is in this liminal stage that we can accept God’s commandments of life and promise to live according to God’s plan for us.

The vigil readings end with a promise of regeneration.  The waters that at first threatened us now cleanse us.  We are given new hearts that will enable us to live the life of faith to which we will soon again commit ourselves.  We now stand at the threshold of a new creation — our next step is into the waters of baptism, there to be re-created, to be born anew, to die and to rise in Christ.  Then our passing over will be complete, and we will be embraced by Christ, our true Passover.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s