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The Easter Vigil Readings: Our Story of Salvation

Stephen S. Wilbricht  

"By most ancient tradition, this is the night of keeping vigil for the Lord . . ." begins the instructions of the Easter Vigil in The Roman Missal. However, the concept of "keeping vigil" in a culture of instant gratification might seem archaic, especially in a world of contemporary liturgical practice that often embodies a "get-to-the-point" attitude rather than a sense of deliberate and patient contemplation. The nine readings of the Easter Vigil (seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament) are chosen and structured to to lead the worshipping assembly into a deep contemplation of the mystery of salvation history—from the beginning of time, when God created the world in all its wonder, to this moment of the Church gathered in prayer, to the end of time when all things will be brought to perfection once again in God's love.

Is this schema—these extended readings with their attendant sung responses and concluding Collects—intended to be simply comfort for the Church, a moment of respite and reprieve? Absolutely not! The act of listening to God's Word in vigilant prayer is difficult, strenuous work, and the reality is that we are not well trained to "vigil" gracefully. Kevin W. Irwin writes: "The dynamic of hearing the texts, responding in psalm and collect prayer is meant to foster abiding gratitude and awareness of how salvation is effected among us, especially through word and sacrament, particularly baptism and eucharist" (Easter: A Guide to the Eucharist and Hours, Liturgical Press, 1991, 65). However, "to foster abiding gratitude and awareness" of how God acts to save us requires a true investment of time and concentration. For this reason, the tradition of the Church attests to the uniqueness of the Easter Vigil and the unparalleled gift of "this night" to Christians everywhere.

What is this gift that "the mother of all Vigils" (Rubric 20; a title attributed to Saint Augustine) desires to impart upon the Church? This question is best answered according to the context in which these scripture passages are proclaimed, for it is a context unlike any other in the Christian calendar. The Church assembles in the evening shadows around the cosmic flames of the new Easter fire. There, the Church blesses God's gift of light, light that provides direction, flames that produce warmth, signs of Christ's abiding presence leaping up before his people. The Church processes with this light and, in the singing of the Exsultet, announces that "This is the night" of the Church's Passover from bondage to freedom.

Dear brothers and sisters,
now that we have begun our solemn Vigil,
let us listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God.
Let us meditate on how God in times past saved his people
and in these, the last days, has sent us his Son as our Redeemer.
Let us pray that our God may complete this paschal work of salvation
by the fullness of redemption.
(Instruction on the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil)

On "this night," the Christian community tells the story that attempts to answer the query: who are you, O God, you who create, redeem, and promise future glory? Out of the evening shadows, the Church quietly listens and makes its pilgrim way in confidence and faith that "Christ our Passover" (from the prayer after the First Reading) is the incarnate answer to the question we pose to our God.

Genesis 1:1—2:2:
A God of All Goodness

It is logical indeed to begin the telling of the story of salvation "in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) In this reading, God's goodness is revealed in the creation of the cosmos, with its waters, its light, the sky, the earth, the sea, vegetation, animals, and finally humans. The Church hears in this reading that every step of creation was sealed with God seeing "how good it was." The Church is led to contemplate that God's goodness is revealed in the creation of order out of chaos. In distinguishing light from darkness and day from night, God is able to bestow upon creation an inherent dignity that mirrors God's very likeness. Thus, the purpose of creation is to return the love God has bestowed in his gift, by reflecting God's word—"how good it was"—and by working to restore the harmony and the oneness that is the blueprint of God's design. Thus, Psalm 104 follows this reading and echoes the story of creation as a blessing of God's glory: "Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord, my God, you are great indeed! . . . The earth is full of your creatures. Bless the Lord, O my soul!" God's love is revealed in the oneness of creation, and the Church recognizes in Christ such oneness restored:

Almighty ever-living God,
who are wonderful in the ordering of all your works,
may those you have redeemed understand
that there exists nothing more marvelous
than the world's creation in the beginning
except that, at the end of the ages,
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
(Prayer after the First Reading)

Genesis 22:1—18:
A Faithful God

The Second Reading of the Easter Vigil tells the dramatic story of God putting Abraham to the test by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This story represents so much more than the horror of one man willing to kill his son; rather, it signals the potential destruction of a relationship with God and the loss of an entire nation. Quite simply, if Isaac dies, so too does the covenant, for God had promised to Abraham: "With him (Isaac) I will establish my Covenant, a Covenant in perpetuity, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him" (Genesis 17:19). Thus, the test of Abraham's faith tells us more about God's unconditional love for his people. It is the story of God's desire to fulfill what he has promised. The human response to God's fidelity is ongoing obedience, which the Church sees in the perfect obedience of Christ's sacrifice. "The typology of Isaac and Jesus is completed when we become examples of those who have committed their lives to the Lord as our ‘portion and cup'" (Irwin, A Guide to the Eucharist and Hours: Easter, 69). With those awaiting the waters of Baptism, the attitude of obedience in response to God's ongoing fidelity is made apparent in the Church "this night." Appropriately, Psalm 16 and its response articulate the willing trust of the Church: "You are my inheritance, O Lord . . . you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption" (Psalm 16:10).

Exodus 14:15-15:1:
A Mighty God

The night of Passover, in which God came to rescue Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh and forced slavery in Egypt, is the backdrop for the Third Reading of the Vigil. In the Book of Exodus, God calls Moses and orders him to say to Pharaoh in God's name: "Israel is my firstborn son. I ordered you to let my son go to offer me worship. You refuse to let him go. So be it! I shall put your first-born to death" (Exodus 4:23). In the account from Exodus proclaimed here, we picture the Egyptians in hot pursuit of the Israelites after the angel of death has passed through all of Egypt, putting to death all the firstborn in the land. While the Israelites follow Moses and his outstretched hand through the sea "with the water like a wall to their right and to their left" (Exodus 14:22), the focus of this reading is upon God's mighty power. Not only will Israel come to faith because of God's marvelous display of might, but so too will all of Egypt be awe-struck: "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I receive glory through Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers" (Exodus 14:17). Our reading of this story of God's victory at the sea concludes with our joining Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites in their song of praise for what God has accomplished: "I will sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant: horse and chariot he has cast into the sea." Furthermore, the Church sees in this reading the foreshadowing of Baptism, where God's power is revealed in the "waters of rebirth":

O God, whose ancient wonders remain undimmed in splendor even in our day,
for what you once bestowed on a single people,
freeing them from Pharaoh's persecution
by the power of your right hand,
now you bring about as the salvation of the nations
through the waters of rebirth,
grant, we pray, that the whole world
may become children of Abraham
and inherit the dignity of Israel's birthright.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Prayer after the Third Reading)

Isaiah 54:5—14:
A God of True Forgiveness

The prophecy of Isaiah constitutes the fourth installment in our Paschal account of salvation history, and here Isaiah calls the Lord the "husband" of Israel: "The Lord calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, a wife married in youth and then cast off" (Isaiah 54:6). Although God's people may have behaved as an immature spouse, not ready for the responsibilities of a serious and demanding relationship, God's wrath will not last, and redemption will be close at hand. While God's might may be shown in his ability to move the Israelites through the Red Sea, an even greater demonstration of God's power is shown here in the gift of mercy: "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" (Isaiah 54:10). These words from the prophecy of Isaiah are brought into the immediate life of the Church, and we are reminded that, even though we have sinned and wandered far from God, mercy and redemption are always his to give. Psalm 30 responds to the reading with the words: "Sing praise to the Lord, you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger lasts but a moment; a lifetime, his good will."

Isaiah 55:1—11:
God Calls "Come to Me"

If the first four readings of the Easter Vigil may be seen as weaving a thread from God's goodness in creation through the fidelity he shows in keeping the covenant through his great and mighty power to his ability to show the limitlessness of his mercy, the Fifth Reading, again from the prophet Isaiah, begins to allude more precisely to the work of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ and to the sacramental response of the Church. Now is the time to turn to the Lord: "come, without paying and without cost. . . . Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near" (Isaiah 55:1, 6). The prophet Isaiah consoles Israel with the promise that God's ways are not the ways of the world; God is generous and loving without end. This reading falls at this moment in our retelling of salvation history because it is a reminder that the search for God is always worth undertaking. The Church accepts the invitation to "come" to the Lord in the Sacrament of Baptism, and continues to celebrate the source of all life in the Eucharist. Thus, the declaration made in the accompanying canticle certainly turns our contemplation to what will take place shortly in the baptismal font: "With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3). God's plan of salvation includes the work of prophets like Isaiah, who challenge us to discern God's mysterious ways: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9). The Church understands her relationship with God to be one of responding to his ongoing invitation to life and extending this invitation to all the world: "Come to me."

Baruch 3:9—15, 32-4:4:
God's Wisdom Is Our Peace

In a similar way, the prophet Baruch, in the Sixth Reading chosen for the Easter Vigil, reminds Israel of old and the Church of today that wisdom is the greatest of all treasures. God alone knows wisdom, but he has given her to Israel to cherish. Baruch calls Israel to accountability with this gift bestowed by God: "She (wisdom) 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" (Baruch 4:1). We know that the history of the Jewish people, like our own history in Christianity, is a long pilgrimage of straying from the path and finding the right way again, all by the goodness of God's mercy and grace. The prophetic words of Baruch serve as a reminder of what is truly enduring in this world, namely the wisdom of God that never fails. Thus, Psalm 19 that follows the reading employs a verse from John's Gospel to serve as our response: "Lord, you have the words of everlasting life" (John 6:68). The Church sees in this reading and its Responsorial Psalm the assurance that God's wisdom watches over her and causes her to grow:

O God, who constantly increase your Church
by your call to the nations,
graciously grant
to those you wash clean in the waters of Baptism
the assurance of your unfailing protection.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Prayer after the Sixth Reading)

Ezekiel 36:16—17a,18—28):
God Gives Us His Spirit

The Seventh Reading, the last from the Old Testament, continues the theme of God's intimate interaction with a rebellious people, a people who "defiled" the gift of God "by their conduct and deeds" (Ezekiel 36:16). God inflicts great punishment upon Israel for its lack of faith and for choosing to worship idols: "I scattered them among the nations, dispersing them over foreign lands; according to their conduct and deeds I judged them" (Ezekiel 36:19). Nevertheless, the prophet Ezekiel is sent to announce that God will prove to Israel and all the nations that he is able to gather what he has scattered—he will forgive. Even more importantly, God is the source of real conversion: it is not that Israel turns back on its own, but God turns Israel back to himself. "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" (Ezekiel 36:26). When the Church hears this reading in the context of "this night," it is reminded that our summons at Baptism is initiated by God. The spirit to turn back to God when we have wandered astray is, in fact, God's gift to us. God places within us the desire to return to him. Psalm 42 responds with just this sentiment: "Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul longs for you, my God."

A "New" Story Begins
With these seven readings describing God's role in history as creator, a redeemer who is faithful, mighty, forgiving, and just, one who is the source of wisdom from without and the spirit from within, the Christian community is now prepared to hear of the work of Christ, of his role in salvation history, of his mission to bring all things to completion in himself. For this reason, the Church expresses its joy by lighting the altar candles, singing the Gloria, and ringing bells (see rubric 31 of the Easter Vigil Mass). The singing of the Gloria at this point in the liturgy—between the Old and the New Testament—should signal to us that what follows is particularly important to the life of the Church:

In the history of salvation, the "Gloria" occupies exactly the place between the preparatory history of redemption and the beginning of redemption itself. "Gloria" is a kind of sign of the new and messianic age, a sign of passing over from shadow to truth. And the song "Gloria" is so appropriate for this moment of joy that the prophets foretold as much with jubilation. (Schemata no. 278, 1968 draft. Quote found in Paul Turner, Glory in the Cross, Liturgical Press, 2011, 141–142).

The Gloria was not always located at this moment in the Easter Vigil liturgy. In the Gelasian Sacramentary, a book from the eighth century, the Gloria was found at the end of the baptismal ceremony where it served as a hymn of praise for Baptism. However, its present location restores its nature as a song of joy for God's gift of salvation which is manifested in the flesh, as the angels cry out "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill." At the conclusion of the Gloria, the Church prays:

O God, who make this most sacred night radiant
with the glory of the Lord's Resurrection,
stir up in your Church a spirit of adoption,
so that, renewed in body and mind,
we may render you undivided service.

Romans 6:3—11:
Baptized into Christ,
We Have Died to Ourselves

Just as the readings from the Old Testament were originally composed by the ancient Israelites to tell the story of how it came into being as a great nation, how God provides for the covenant, and what mutual fidelity to that covenant will bring, so too does this reading from Paul's letter to the Romans serve as a benchmark description of who we are as followers of Christ. "Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). But that is not all: Baptism into Christ's Death is not simply a mark of our past but also constitutes our present life and our future glory: we are "dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11). In terms of salvation history, redemption comes from adherence to the New Law, which is Christ himself, and Baptism is the sacramental key to this relationship. What better response to this cornerstone of salvation history than to sing out "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia" with the three couplets of Psalm 118:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
   for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
   "His mercy endures forever."

The right hand of the Lord has struck with power;
   the right hand of the Lord is exalted.
I shall not die, but live,
   and declare the works of the Lord.

The stone which the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone.
By the Lord has this been done;
   it is wonderful in our eyes.

The Empty Tomb
Remembering that the liturgy of "this night" is the work of keeping vigil for the Lord, the Ninth Reading—Matthew 28:1–10 in Year A, Mark 16:1–7 in Year B, and Luke 24:1–12 in Year C—leads the Church into the empty tomb. Notice that we are not given a story of the Lord's appearance after his Resurrection, as we will be on Easter morning when Jesus appears to his disciples in the upper room and says to them: "Peace be with you." Instead, we are given the message of an angel: "Do not be afraid!" Those who look into the emptiness of the tomb are the women who came to anoint the Lord's body; women prepared to encounter death discovered faith instead:

May your tongue proclaim these things, woman,
and explain them to the sons of the kingdom
who wait for me to awaken; me, the Living One.
Go quickly, Mary, gather my disciples.
in you I have a loud trumpet:
play a song of peace to the fearful ears of my hidden friends,
waken them all from sleep,
so that they may come to meet me
and light their torches.
Go and say: "The bridegroom is awake, coming out of the tomb,
leaving nothing within."
(Romanus the Melodist in Sources chrétiennes 128: 401)

The encounter at the tomb is no private revelation; instead, it moves Mary Magdalene to call forth the faith of the disciples, to brighten their hearts out of darkness and fear. The Church shares in this encounter as well as we relight our torches, welcome new members, and profess our Easter faith in "life everlasting." The story of salvation continues in the Church as she participates in the revelation of a God whose love conquers the vacuous darkness of a tomb; there is nothing that can dim the hope of our salvation!

Surveying these stories of God's gift of salvation at the Vigil every year reminds us that our God acts within the events of human (and cosmic) history. Our God does not merely create and then step out of the way; our God is intimately invested in the things of this world. Thus, the Church remembers "this night" that participation in salvation is a pilgrim journey out of the darkness of sin and slavery into the light of freedom and hope. History fulfilled and promises assured are what mark the readings of this sacred night:

By the reader's desk the Paschal candle is burning; its light falls upon the pages of the Old Testament. Christ casts his light into the darkness of the past, and shows everywhere the saving design of his agapé, which held man from the beginning in its hands, held him fast, and is today fulfilled. The mind will never be more supple to receive this knowledge than tonight. . . . The Church repeats for the last time the lessons of God's wisdom . . . : the whole of human history, as the revelation of God's love, which has marched past us in the many nights since then, is to be summed up once more in the prophecies we read now, as in a compendium. (Aemiliana Löhr, The Great Week, Newman Press, 1958, 162 –163)

On "this night," the Church reclaims herself to be swept up into the revelation of God's love; a God who loves the world into being demonstrates the quality of his love through unfailing patience and mercy and shows the extreme depths of his love in Christ's Death upon the Cross and Resurrection to life. "This night" celebrates that "life everlasting" is the outcome of God's love; the Church is caught up in the awesome wonder of a love that cannot be contained in a tomb, cannot die. And so, the Church continues to tell the story that takes up the question: who are you, O God, you who create, redeem, and promise future glory?

Stephen S. Wilbricht, CSC, STD,
is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stonehill College in Easton, MA.

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