April 20, 2014
Seven OT Readings: Gen 1:1—2:2; Gen 22:1-18; Exod 14:15—15:1; Isa 54:5-14; Isa 55:1-11; Bar 3:9-15, 3:32—4:4; Ezek 36:16-17a, 18-28.
When my friend went to the Easter Vigil for the first time and started hearing the many readings, he thought for a moment that they were going to read the whole Bible! At Easter, we might expect a lot of New Testament texts, but instead the Church presents us with seven Old Testament readings and eight responsorial psalms. That’s 15 Old Testament texts in one sitting—talk about an Old Testament extravaganza! Interestingly, on Easter morning, zero Old Testament texts are read, except for the super-Alleluia Psalm 118.
Praying and Waiting in the Dark
The Easter Vigil always reminds me of those long car trips my family took when I was young. We would get up before dawn and get on the road so we could make it to our destination by nightfall. At the Easter Vigil, we gather at church in the dark. We wait, watch, hope and pray in the dark. Praying in the dark might seem kind of strange, and reading tons of the Old Testament in the dark might feel even stranger. But, all the waiting, watching, and hoping has a purpose, a direction, a fulfillment. The lengthy and numerous Old Testament readings prepare us and teach us. They re-tell the story of salvation so as to direct our minds toward its ultimate goal, its consummation in the resurrection of Christ. The liturgy itself offers a rhythm of reading, psalm, prayer, then reading, psalm prayer, so we can enter into the cadence of waiting and allow our hearts to slowly swell in preparation for the resurrection. While we listen, we feel the last moments of fasting and penance giving way to the glorious celebration of Easter.
If we have been listening attentively to the Old Testament readings throughout Lent, we have already encountered the story: the Fall, Abraham, the Exodus, the kingship of David, the resurrection future and the Suffering Servant. But now the Church presents to us the resurrection logic of the universe. By starting with the creation account of Genesis 1, the Lectionary points out that all of creation, all of reality was pointing toward this moment, that the destiny of the universe is somehow tied up in Jesus’ resurrection. The readings for the vigil pick up the story and retell it in its grandest dimensions: God’s creation of everything, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, the prophet Isaiah’s announcement of God’s merciful recall of his people from exile, and Ezekiel’s proclamation of cleansing.
Interpreting the Story
Perhaps the best way to say it is that throughout Lent, we have heard the story of salvation, but now at the grandest of feasts, in the darkest of hours, we finally receive the interpretation of the story. All the threads are brought together as the Church invites us to read all of these texts side-by-side. The power of the resurrection is magnified and its significance unveiled by filling in the backstory and explaining its dynamics. While we could have been discouraged by the story of the Old Testament, the fall of Adam and Eve and the many failures of God’s people, now we are given the definitive interpretation that all of these stories were leading up to: God created the universe in such a way that it would point us back to himself. Sin loses. Love wins. Easter was in his mind from the first moment of creation.
Re-Reading the Old Testament in Light of Christ
Jesus’ resurrection fulfills the story, offers redemption, brings us back from the exile of sin. The near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 only makes sense in light of Christ. When Ezekiel prophesies, “I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land” (Ezek 36:24), he means ultimately that God is bringing us back from the land of sin to live in his presence. When Baruch says of Wisdom, “all who cling to her will live” (Bar 4:1), he is pointing to Jesus. When Isaiah proclaims, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Isa 55:1), he is inviting us to the baptismal font, which Jesus offers to us. The Psalms that we sing in between the readings repeatedly use water imagery, which points to the cleansing waters of Baptism, in which the catechumens are about to be dunked. The meaning of the Exodus parting of the sea only finds fulfillment in the waters of salvation which Christ offers.
The story of salvation and its profound Easter interpretation reminds us of who God is, how he works, and how he created the universe so that we could share in his divine life. The plan of salvation was clear in his mind from the beginning. Through his resurrection on Easter morning, Jesus definitively conquers death and offers us eternal life. He is the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) from the dead and invites us to share in his victory. That is why we can wait in the dark and pray in hope, for the Dawn is great indeed.
image: Wikimedia Commons