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The Great Vigil of Easter: Years A,B,C

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD

 

 

The Story of Creation,

  • Genesis 1:1-24a  Most likely written while the Jews were exiled in Babylon, this could serve as a liturgical text meant to remind that God is the giver of the gift of the abundance, beauty and exuberance of life and original innocence.
  • Psalm 136:1-9,23-26 Creation itself and those times when God has intervened “when we were low” are continuing reminders that God’s “kindness is forever.”

 

The Flood

  • Genesis 7:1-5,11-18,8:6-18,9:8-13 For reasons that could only seem arbitrary and harsh because they remain known to God alone, God initiates a flood of the whole earth as the means for a fresh start with creation and humankind.
  • Psalm 46 The psalmist insists that there are times so catastrophic in life that we can only “let go” and trust that God is at work in the crisis somewhere, someway, somehow.

 

Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac

  • Genesis 22:1-18 God makes an unreasonable demand for reasons known to God only.  Initially these tests are strange, even scary, such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his and Sarah’s only child, Isaac.  But we should learn/trust that in the long view, God’s larger purpose is to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, meaning out of senselessness.
  • Psalm 16 A psalm of testimony: despite life’s vagaries, the Lord sustains.

 

Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea

  • Exodus 14:10-31, 1520-21 The most spectacular display of God’s deliverance in Israel’s long history: God led God’s people out of slavery under an ancient superpower, Egypt.   As in the other defining displays of God’s intervention– including God’s initiation with Abraham and Sarah of the first covenant — God requires uprooting, movement, leaving behind the familiar, discovering something new in a new place, all based on trust.
  • Canticle (Exodus 15:1-6,11-13,17-18) Only God could have performed such a spectacular reversal of fortune and saved God’s people.

Salvation offered freely to all

  • Isaiah 55:1-11 ” ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways,’ says the Lord.”  Despite our anxieties, confusion and reluctance, we are to trust God’s “ways.”
  • Canticle (Isaiah 12-2-6) A summons to sing; the lyrics recall God’s actions in the past, remember past benefits and give thanks.

In Praise of Wisdom

  • Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4 Wisdom, the cumulative insights and testimony over many generations’ experiences with God, is a reliable aid to follow the sometimes ambiguous commandments of God.

–OR– The Gifts of Wisdom

  • Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6 Wisdom is a beautiful woman who, when she speaks, we immediately recognize her integrity and veracity.
  • Psalms 19 The same Creator of creation is the giver of life-sustaining commandments.

 

A new heart and a new spirit

  • Ezekiel 36-24-38 Traumatized by captivity, Ezekiel rails against God’s people for their infidelity, but then offers assurances of restoration.
  • Psalms 42 and 43 Feeling the alienation from God while in exile, the psalmist pleads for God’s presence.

 

The valley of dry bones

  • Ezekiel 37:1-14a A rare and relatively late expression in the Hebrew scriptures that God’s rescue actions can even bring life out of death or extend beyond death.
  • Psalm 143 A plea to God for assurance and protection.

 

The gathering of God’s people

  • Zephaniah 3:14-20 A promise of God’s direct presence among God’s people.
  • Psalm 98 The choir and orchestra join the universal hymn to God

 

AT THE EUCHARIST

  • Romans 6:3-11

Paul teaches that “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus” were “baptized into his death.”  Baptism therefore, is a ‘burial’ and a ‘raising up’.  Consequently, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we, too, might walk in newness of life.”  This is a defining point in our life: “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

  • Psalm 114

The psalmist celebrates “when Israel came out of Egypt…  Judah became God’s sanctuary.”  The river Jordan “turned back” and “mountains dance.”  The world “whirls” before its Maker/Master, the same One who, through Moses, brought water out of a stone in the wilderness.

  • Year A: Matthew 28:1-10

While none of the gospel writers attempts to describe the resurrection, Matthew presents the most dramatic report of the discovery of the empty tomb.  Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” come to the tomb on Saturday evening (not Sunday morning, as in Mark and Luke) and not with ointments for burial, because the tomb had already been sealed by the Chief Priests and was being guarded by Roman soldiers.  Only Matthew’s narrative reports an earthquake, as it did when Jesus died.  An angel descends, rolls back the stone and shows the women that the tomb is empty.  That descending angel, whose appearance is like lightning and whose clothing is as white as snow, is assumed to be an allusion to the angel of the apocalypse in the Book of Daniel.  For the third time in Matthew’s narrative, an angel appears at a crucial moment with a specific message.  These two women, who had just had small roles so far, now emerge in the narrative as the ones charged by the Risen Lord himself to tell the others what they have heard and seen; to carry the news that “my brothers” should go back to Galilee where Jesus will rejoin them.  The women embrace his feet, but Jesus urges them to get on with their assignment: “do not  be afraid; go and tell my brothers [no longer the more formal “disciples”] to go to Galilee; there they [too] will see me.”

  • Year B: Mark 16:1-8

Mark’s narrative has dwelt on the failures of those closest to Jesus throughout his final hours.  It continues after the resurrection.  The women in the inner circle go to the tomb to anoint the corpse.  When they arrive, they are greeted with an announcement from a “young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them that Jesus of Nazareth who they saw executed “is not here.”  “He has been raised.”  They are instructed to return and tell Peter and the others.  But the women are frozen with fear and initially tell no one.  Finally, they tell some “around” Peter and the news gets to him.  Without details, Mark writes simply, “Jesus himself sent out through them the proclamation.”

  • Year C: Luke 24:1-12

Luke has meticulously recorded that the women who followed the body of Jesus to the tomb of the stranger, Joseph of Arimathea, on Friday evening did not complete preparation of the corpse for burial because the Sabbath was beginning.  On the morning after the Sabbath, “the first day of the week,” they returned to the tomb with the appropriate spices and oils in hand.  “[B]ut when the went in, they did not find the body.”  At first, they were merely “perplexed.”  But then, suddenly, “Two men in dazzling clothe stood beside them.”  Now they were “terrified.”  The dazzling figures announce that Jesus is “risen.”  Recall, they tell the women, that while still back in Galilee Jesus said that “the Son on Man must be handed over to sinners to be crucified and on the third day rise again,”  (9:22,44; 18:31-33).  The women returned to tell the eleven men and “all the rest” their news.  The men dismiss the women and their “idle tale.”  Except one.  “Peter gets up and runs to the tomb….”  He saw the burial cloths in a pile and returned “amazed at what had happened.”

The nine possible readings and responsive psalms/canticles (from which at least two are read, including the story of Exodus), which comprise the Liturgy of the Word for the Great Vigil include the foundational demonstrations of God’s relationship to humankind through the history of Israel with the promise of God’s continuing participation.  There are no appeals to human reason.  Rather, there are bold assertions: all that exists is only because of God’s actions and for reasons known to God alone; God takes corrective action without always full disclosure to us of exactly how or where or when or through whom God acts.  Our individual lives, as well as all creation, therefore, can be seen as infused with meaning, if we so chose to hear these claims and believe them.  Life has purpose, goals, expectations for justice because God initiated it and sustains it in God’s unique ways.  The choice we make is as stark and basic as dark/light, despair/hope, indifference/enthusiasm. isolation/community, life/death.  These readings oscillate between times when we flet close to God and other times when we felt isolated, but the overall arc is towards the promise that God always prefers relationship and, therefore, we should expect, look out for signs of hope.

From the earliest traditions of the church, baptism is seen as nothing less than believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We can imagine who we would be with or without it, and the difference is all the difference in the world.

The three “synoptic” accounts– Matthew, Mark and Luke– have distinctive variances but some unifying features; in Matthew’s account, there is a unique account of an earthquake, in Mark some unidentified women are entrusted with the task of delivering the news to Peter and the others that they were told by a “young man dressed in a white robe” Jesus “is not here,” Luke writes that there were “two men in dazzling clothe” that Jesus is “risen.”  Yet in all three accounts, the first reaction is the same: shock and “fear.” 

In her memoir, Virginia Woolf describes the crucial role of “sudden shocks” in her life.  She writes that they are “revelations of some order,” “a token of some real thing behind appearances and I make it real by putting it into words….”  Further on, she describes how her novel To the Lighthouse, which is generally regarded as her best, came to her in a sudden rush as she was taking a walk in London’s Tavistock Square.  In that novel, she puts into words the content of those “sudden shocks” that alter our lives.  She writes in her wonderful prose/poetic style: 

“as summer neared, as the evenings lengthened, there came to the wakeful, the hopeful, walking the beach, stirring the pool, imaginations of the strangest kind– of flesh turned to atoms which drove before the wind, of stars flashing in their hearts, of cliff, sea, cloud, and sky brought purposely together to assemble outwardly the scattered parts of the vision within.  In those mirrors, the minds of men, in whose pools of uneasy water in which clouds forever turn and shadows form, dreams persisted, and it was impossible to resist the strange intimations which every gull, flower, tree, man, woman and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once withdrew) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules: or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the process of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.  Moreover, softened and acquiescent, the spring with her bees humming and gnats dancing throw her cloak about her, veiled their eyes averted her  head, and, among passing shadows and flights of small rain seemed to have taken upon her a knowledge of the sorrows of mankind.”

We are creatures who do not live routinely by hard “crystals” of “absolute good” that are alien to everyday life.  We are, however, blessed with occasional “sudden shocks” that illuminate and allow us to see, even among the “sorrows of mankind,” life’s meaning,  joy, and purpose for ourselves and for every other person.  The ancient biblical promises and the Easter announcement prime us, urge us, prepare us, train us for those “sudden shocks” which show us instantly the possible meaningfulness of life.

All night had shout of men and cry

    Of woeful women filled his way;

Until that noon of sombre sky

    On Friday, clamour and display

Smote him; no solitude had he;

No silence, since Gethsemane

Public was death; but power, but might,

    But life again, but victory,

Were hushed within the dead of night,

    The shuttered dark, the secrecy,

And all alone, alone, alone

He rose again behind the stone

                                                           Alice Meynell 1847-1922

With dramatic fire kindled in the dark and then a sudden jolt from near-darkness to bright light and from sombre re-telling of ancient stories of miraculous deliverance to an announcement too staggering to be readily believed by those who were the first to be told accompanied by a “Great Noise” of rude, brash bells, The Great Vigil of Easter makes in the most vivid ways an announcement: Love prevails!  God’s love has seen/endured the absolute worst in human personal and social behavior and God has made a choice: to respond with more Love, with more forgiveness, with even more grace!

At the climax of this liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, this homily from John Chrysostom is read:

Let everyone who loves God rejoice in this festival of light!

Let the faithful servant gladly enter into the joy of his Lord!

Let those who have borne the burden of fasting come now to reap their reward!

Let those who have worked since the first hour receive now their just wage!

Let those who came after the third hour keep this festival with gratitude!

Let those who arrived only after the sixth hour approach with no fear: they will not be defrauded!

If someone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him come without hesitation!

And let not the workman of the eleventh hour be ashamed: the Lord is generous!

He welcomes the last no less than the first.

He welcomes into his peace the workman of the eleventh hour as kindly as the one who has worked since dawn.

The first he fills to overflowing: on the last he has compassion.

To the one he grants his favor: to the other pardon.

He does not only look at the work: he sees into the intention of the heart.

Enter all of you into the joy of your Master.

First and last, receive your reward…

Abstinent and slothful celebrate this feast.

You have fasted, rejoice today.

The table is laid: come all of you without misgivings.

The fatted calf is served, let us all take our fill.

All of you, share in the banquet of faith: all of you draw on the wealth of his mercy!

 

The Great Vigil of Easter rehearses the long, convoluted story of our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.  It is a story with sordid details of human failure and with even more dramatic episodes of God’s benevolence, including God’s response to Good Friday sometime– no one knows when– on Saturday night; the results were discovered on Sunday morning.  The bad and the good of this story explain each other.

 

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