Scripture and the Liturgy

The Easter Vigil

This commentary, and others on the great Feast Days of the Church, can be found in print form in my book, The Word of the LORD: Solemnities and Feasts, available here.

The Readings for the Easter Vigil recount the history of salvation by focusing on the various covenant stages throughout the Biblical storyline. 

I’ll proceed to point out how all these covenants appear in various forms in the seven Old Testament readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word for the Vigil.

1. The First Reading:

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 readings begin with the creation story from Genesis 1, a text concerning the Creation Covenant.  That there was a covenant present at creation is controversial, but it has the backing of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as certain contemporary scholars and a stream of the Jewish tradition.  Benedict XVI’s argument for the presence of a creation covenant hinges on the culmination of the creation week with the Sabbath, which elsewhere in the OT is understood to be the sign of the covenant (Exod 31:16-17).  Hosea 6:7 (in Hebrew: “Like Adam they transgressed the covenant”) testifies to a very early interpretive tradition which understood a covenant to be present already at the beginning of human history.  We also note the sevenfold structure of the creation account, which evokes covenant concepts: see Genesis 21:27-32.  In Hebrew, to swear an oath was literally “to seven oneself” (a niphal verb from the root for “seven”). God appears to be “sevening himself” in the seven days of creation.  Finally, we observe that man is made in God’s “image and likeness”, which is sonship terminology (see Gen 5:3).  There is a father-son relationship between God and Adam.  This is clearly not a biological relationship, so it must be an adoptive relationship, that is to say, a covenantal relationship.  Adoptions in the ancient world were accomplished by means of a covenant. 

1a. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 104, which falls near the end of Book IV of the Psalter.  Book IV appears to be a theological meditation on the reality of Judah’s exile.  Since the Davidic monarchy has apparently failed, Book IV contains many psalms that emphasize God’s kingship rather than David’s.  Psalm 104 is an example of this.  It praises God as the great king over the whole cosmos.  God is in a covenant relationship with the cosmos: therefore the Psalm emphasizes God’s fidelity to creation, exemplified in the unchanging and dependable patterns of nature.

2. The Second Reading:

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.”

To understand this account in Genesis 22, we must realize that Isaac was no five-year-old but a strong young man at the time of this event.  We recognize this because Isaac carries the wood of the sacrifice up the mountain—a very heavy load indeed, compared to what the aged Abraham carries.  There was no way Abraham could have captured or overpowered Isaac to be sacrificed against his will.  Josephus puts Isaac’s age at this point in the biblical narrative at 37 years, but that seems too old to me.  I would approximate in his late teens.  But the point remains: this was a death Isaac freely accepted.

Three times in this passage Isaac is called the (Heb.) yahid son of Abraham, a rare word that was rendered into Greek either as “one-and-only” or as “beloved.”  “One and only” is more literal, “beloved” more dynamic.  We see echoes of this term in the New Testament when John calls Jesus the “one and only” or “only begotten” son (Jn 1:14,18; 3:16,18), and where Jesus is called the “beloved son” in the Synoptics at the Baptism and Transfiguration.

Genesis 22 is one of the most central texts in all the Old Testament.  I call it the “Calvary of the Old Testament,” perhaps the most important type of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in the pages of the Scriptures of Israel.  Genesis 22, of course, recounts the “Aqedah” or binding of Isaac, in which Abraham comes close to sacrificing his “one and only” or “only begotten” son on the wood of the altar on the top of Mt. Moriah.  God’s solemn oath of blessing on Abraham in vv. 15-18 is one of the central texts in all the Bible: arguably, this the culmination of the covenant with Abraham begun in Genesis 15 and continued in Genesis 17.  Although the word “covenant” does not appear in Genesis 22, God’s solemn oath in vv. 15-18 was understood as a covenant in subsequent Scripture (e.g. Deut 7:8-9; Luke 1:72-73).  “Oath” and “covenant” are frequently synonymous in the Bible and ancient Near East (see Ezekiel 17:11-21). This solemn covenant-oath by God promises blessing to all nations through the seed of Abraham; Easter is a celebration of the fulfillment of that promise, as all nations have been blessed through Jesus the seed of Abraham (Matt 1:1) who pours out the Spirit on all nations through his self-sacrifice on the cross.

2a. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 16:

R. (1) You are my inheritance, O Lord.
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.

Psalm 16 is a very famous Psalm of David that was used by the Apostles in their early preaching to prove Jesus’ Messianic status because of the resurrection and the fact that he “never saw corruption.”  (See Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13).  The Psalm is chanted here in the liturgy, because Isaac’s salvation from death on the altar is seen as a type of the Resurrection of Jesus, the later “only begotten son” who is both the Son of Abraham and the Son of David (Matt 1:1).

3. The Third Reading:

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.

The third OT reading for the Vigil is Exodus 14, the account of the triumph of God in delivering the Israelites from the armies of Egypt at the Red Sea.  This corresponds to the Mosaic Covenant (the covenant with Israel through Moses), as the people of Israel had already entered into a covenant relationship with God through the Passover (Exodus 12-13) and were headed out to Sinai where the covenant would be further solemnized (Exodus 24).

3a. The Responsorial Psalm is actually Exodus 15:

R. (1b) Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
He is my God, I praise him;
the God of my father, I extol him.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
The LORD is a warrior,
LORD is his name!
Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea;
the elite of his officers were submerged in the Red Sea.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
The flood waters covered them,
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, magnificent in power,
your right hand, O LORD, has shattered the enemy.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
You brought in the people you redeemed
and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance
the place where you made your seat, O LORD,
the sanctuary, LORD, which your hands established.
The LORD shall reign forever and ever.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.

We note that this song of victory over the enemies of God—remember that the Resurrection is the great victory over God’s enemies as well—concludes with the people of God coming to the “mountain of your inheritance” and the “sanctuary” of the LORD, in other words, the Temple.  The whole Exodus had a liturgical goal: to bring the people of Israel to a place and land where they could worship.  Jesus body is our New Temple (John 2:21).  We enter the New Temple—rather it enters us—at the reception of the Body and Blood tonight.

4.  The Fourth Reading:

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.

The fourth OT reading is a beautiful passage from Isaiah 54:5-14, which, surprisingly, makes reference to the Noahic Covenant  (Isaiah 54:9), and compares the coming “covenant of peace” (Isaiah’s term for the reality described by Jeremiah as the “new covenant,” Jer 31:31) to the covenant made with Noah.  This passage also employs touching marital imagery to describe God’s relationship with Israel.  Marriage was a form of covenant in ancient Israel, so it was natural to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel in terms of marriage.

This Reading from Isaiah describes God taking his wife Israel back after a disruption of the relationship.  The primary sense here probably refers to the exile (or exiles) which appeared to be breaking of God’s covenant with wife Israel.  Jesus comes to undo the exile and restore Israel, which is part of the meaning of the Twelve Apostles who are Twelve New Patriarchs for the restored Israel.  Also the twelve baskets full after the feeding of the five thousand are a rich symbol of Jesus gathering up the fragments of God’s people and putting them back together again. 

But the incarnation was also a “marriage” of human and divine nature which seemed to be “divorced” by the death of Christ, only to be quickly restored and resumed by the Resurrection.  So Easter is the re-affirmation of God’s uniting of his nature to ours in the mystical marriage of the hypostatic union. 

The Easter vigil sacraments are full of nuptial symbolism.  Baptism is a wedding bath, the Eucharist a wedding feast.  The Song of Songs was heavily used by the Fathers for instructing catechumens on the nature of the Easter sacraments of initiation. 

4a. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 30:

R. (2a) I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the netherworld;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
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.
At nightfall, weeping enters in,
but with the dawn, rejoicing.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me;
O LORD, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.

The Reading and the Psalm are united by the theme of the brevity of God’s anger with his people/servant, and the quick resumption of a loving relationship.  The Psalm literally describes resurrection: “You have brought me up from the netherworld.”  This is the resumption of the “marriage” of human and divine nature discussed above.

5. The Fifth Reading:

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.

The fifth OT reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) is one of my favorite, and one of the most amazing, texts from Isaiah.  In this passage, God promises that at some point in the future, he will offer the covenant of David (“I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my covenant fidelity [Hebrew hesed] for David”; Isa 55:3) to every one who is hungry and thirsty.  He will offer this covenant through eating and drinking (Isa 55:1)!  This is obviously a prophecy of the Eucharist, which Jesus identifies as the “New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).  The Eucharist is a New Covenant, but it also restores the Davidic Covenant.  That’s why Jesus literally says to the Apostles at the Last Supper, “I covenant (Gk diatithemi) a kingdom to you even as my father covenanted one to me” (Luke 22:30).  The Church is the restored Kingdom of David.

5a. The Responsorial is Isaiah 12:

R. (3) You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
is the Holy One of Israel!
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.

Isaiah 12 is a doxology concluding Isaiah 1-12, which is a precis or abstract of the entire Book of Isaiah, a chiastically-structured unit which hits all the themes of the entire book.  Isaiah 12 was chanted during the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles, on the last and great day, when the priests drew water from the Pool of Siloam to pour on the altar in pre-enactment of the supernatural River of Life to flow from the eschatological Temple in the future according to Ezekiel 47.  Jesus refers to this in John 7:37ff: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink…”  The Baptismal water is our “drinking” from the River of Life (the Holy Spirit) that Christ gave us.

6-7.  The sixth OT reading (Bar 3:9-15; 3:32–4:4)

focuses on divine wisdom, but the seventh and last (Ezek 36:16-28) has important covenant themes:

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.

After recounting Israel’s unfaithfulness to the (Mosaic) covenant, Ezekiel prophesies a coming day when God will sprinkle his people with water and put a new spirit within them which will enable them to keep their covenant with God (“live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees”).  Ezekiel 36 is found canonically in the middle of Ezekiel’s “Book of Consolation” (Ezek 34-37), a long section of Ezekiel in which the prophet offers hope for a new age for Israel, a hope that culminates in Ezek 37:25-28 with the establishment of a “covenant of peace”, an “everlasting covenant” (37:26), Ezekiel’s terms for Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer 31:31).

Thus, all the major covenants of salvation history are referred to in some form in the seven OT readings for the Easter Vigil, and taken together the readings (not to mention the psalms that go with them!) make a beautiful synopsis of the general structure of the divine economy (salvation history).  Since the Vigil, like every mass, culminates in the consecration of the bread and wine which become “the New and Everlasting Covenant” in Christ’s blood, it is appropriate that the OT readings recount the older and provisional covenants that anticipated the new one celebrated in the Liturgy.  Understanding salvation history through the lens of the covenant is an authentically Catholic approach to biblical theology.

8.  The Epistle is from Romans 6:

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.

St. Paul stresses that Jesus died to save us from our sins.  Many think this just means that we are saved from the guilt of our sins, but what it really means is that we have been saved from continuing to sin.  Through baptism, we are given the power to stop sinning.  If we continue to sin, we are not in a state of salvation, because it is precisely the power and “addiction” to sin from which we must be saved.  Therefore, those that think Paul preaches a “salvation by faith alone” in Romans that does not involve a radical change in thought, word, and deed are very much mistaken.  Christ died to make us holy, not just get us to heaven.

8a. The Responsorial is Psalm 118:

R. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
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.
R. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
R. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Psalm 118 is a todah or Thanksgiving (“eucharistic”) Psalm that has great significance, as it constitutes the end of the Hallel hymn that was sung at the Passover (Pss 113-118), and therefore was the last Psalm Jesus recited on his lips before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is full of rich resurrection imagery, that would have been very poignant on Holy Thursday night.

9.  The Gospel varies by the year.  We will comment on all three options:

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.”

St. Matthew gives us a summary of the events of Easter morning.  The Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John are a little bit more detailed, but in Matthew’s account one can percieve summaries of these details peaking through. A few notes: St. Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”  This “other Mary” is Mary wife of Cleophas/Clophas, mother of James and Joseph (aka “Joses”).  Tradition identifies her as the sister-in-law of St. Joseph, and her husband Cleophas/Clophas as St. Joseph’s brother.  This is why her two oldest sons James and Joseph/Joses are called the “brothers” of the Lord in Matt 13:55//Mark 6:3; cf. Mark 15:40,47).  Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James and Joses seem to have been particularly close, as Mark mentions them as being together both at the cross and at the tomb (Mark 15:40,47). 

The earthquake is associated with end-times judgment (Isa 29:6; Ezek 38:19) and the the awe-inspiring angel resembles the appearance of God himself at the great judgment (Dan 7:9). So the Resurrection has the character of a foretaste of the final judgment. God has judged the world and vindicated his own Son, declaring him to be innocent and the rightful king of the universe.  The imagery recalls the vision of Daniel 7, where the ancient of days hands over the kingdom to the Son of Man in an act of judgment on the nations of the earth. 

The angel tells the Marys, “Do not be afraid!”, a common greeting from angels (2 Kings 6:16; Luke 1:13,30), and says, “I know you seek Jesus the Crucified.”  “Crucified” is almost used as a title of nobility here.  We might expect “Jesus the King” or “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Divine,” but instead “The Crucified” is his title of honor. It is an interesting example of the paradox of the Gospel and the reversal of the usual signs of shame and honor.  “Come and see the place where he lay”—the physical witness to the resurrection is important.  These are facts: the angel wants the women to be assured of the historical truth of the situation.  Then he sends them on their way, where they meet Jesus and “embraced his feet and did him homage.” These are signs of Jesus’ royalty.  This is how one approaches the presence of the King.  It takes us all the way back to the royal genealogy in Matthew 1. From the first chapter to the last, Jesus is always the royal son of David, the culmination of all the covenant promises in Matthew.  The king tells them: “Do not be afraid, but go tell ….”  That is always the message of Easter: Let us take courage, the worst our opponents can do is kill us, and Jesus has already shown his victory over tell. So let us “go and tell” the world about the salvation that comes through Christ!  Easter always ends with a comission to be an evangelist.

 Year B:

Gospel Mk 16:1-7

When the sabbath was over,
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome
bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.
Very early when the sun had risen,
on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb.
They were saying to one another,
“Who will roll back the stone for us
from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up,
they saw that the stone had been rolled back;
it was very large.
On entering the tomb they saw a young man
sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe,
and they were utterly amazed.
He said to them, “Do not be amazed!
You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.
Behold the place where they laid him.
But go and tell his disciples and Peter,
‘He is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him, as he told you.'”

The different Gospels recount different details about the events of Easter morning, and it can be complicated to fit all the accounts into one chronological sequence.  We have to remember that Easter morning was a shocking and confusing time for the disciples of Jesus and the holy women, and there was a great deal of running back and forth to the tomb to verify reports and investigate what happened.  The different Gospels tend to simplify the back-and-forth trips, or else focus on the experiences of just a few of the characters involved.

This account in Luke is strikingly realistic in that, when confronted with the vindication of all their greatest hopes by the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles and women respond not with celebration but with distrust, disbelief, fear, and confusion. 

How often we and others respond to the Good News of God’s mercy in this way!  It sounds too good to be true.  Someone is tricking us.  Someone is lying and deceiving.  There’s some catch.  We will “bite” on the “bait” and be caught in some kind of fraud.  Yet for centuries the Church has been trying to convince us—and the whole world—that the offer of God’s mercy in Christ is no trick, no fraud, no trap.  He really has risen, in fulfillment of what he said.  He really will forgive sin, and really will bring us to eternal life with him.

This is the culmination of salvation history and all the covenants: the definitive vindication of Jesus, God’s only begotten son, Son of Adam, of Abraham, of David; successor of Moses and the Prophets; the embodied New Israel.  His destiny is our destiny.  This life is just an antechamber to heaven.  Our victory will not be in this life but the next.  The only way to live this life successfully is in preparation for eternal life.  Alleluia!

Year C (Luke 24:1-12):

But at daybreak on the first day of the week

The women who had come from Galilee with Jesus

took the spices they had prepared

and went to the tomb.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;

but when they entered,

they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were puzzling over this, behold,

two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.

They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.

They said to them,

“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?

He is not here, but he has been raised.

Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,

that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners

and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”

And they remembered his words.

Then they returned from the tomb

and announced all these things to the eleven

and to all the others.

The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;

the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,

but their story seemed like nonsense

and they did not believe them.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb,

bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;

then he went home amazed at what had happened.

The events of Easter morning were complicated and involved a lot of rushing back and forth to the tomb and the city, both by the women and some of the apostles.  When we compare all the Gospel accounts, we see certain constants that appear in all of them—like the primacy of Mary Magdalene as a witness to the resurrection—and also variation in detail.  This is due to the Gospel authors trying to summarize all the shock and frantic activity of that morning in a way the reader can follow and grasp. 

But what are some of Luke’s unique emphases?  He alone records the ironic statement of the angel: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”  Jesus is just called “The Living One” like a title here (Gk. ton zonta).  It’s not just that Jesus is alive, it’s that being alive is consituent of his person: he is the one characterized by Life!  Why would anyone seek for the author of life, the one who lives eternally, in the place of the dead, in an area of tombs?  What sense does that make?  To the angel, the ways of the unbelieving humans do not make sense.

Secondly, Luke emphasizes that Jesus had told them this would happen.  In fact, all the Gospels insist Jesus told the disciples beforehand about the suffering, but they just could not understand what he was saying.  It was too foreign to them.  But for the apostles and the first generation of Christians, in particular the Evangelists themselves, the fact that Jesus predicted what would happen to him was a major proof of the truth of Jesus’ claims to the Messiah and Son of God. 

Third, Luke emphasizes the unbelief of the apostles.  “Their story seemed like nonsense.”  One can feel the emotions of contempt and dismissal, even chauvinism: “Silly hysterical women ….”  St. Luke, a well-educated man in the Greco-Roman world and a person of some social standing, must often have encountered people who regarded his teachings and writings about Jesus of Nazareth as “nonsense.” St. Luke was a man of science, a man of medicine, and a man of letters.  He knew well how the natural world and the human world usually worked, but in encountering Jesus and his disciples, St. Luke really came into touch with something miraculous.  Nonetheless, he knows it all sounds like “nonsense” to the world, yet he can’t help continuing to write and document the “certainty” (asphalēs, Lk 1:4) of the Gospel message.

Finally, even the prince of the apostles doesn’t immediately believe but is just “amazed.”  The Gospels do not white-wash the apostles or show them always to be some kind of supernatural superheroes who never make mistakes and always say, do, and believe the right thing. Peter denies Jesus, and even after hearing the testimony of the resurrection and witnessing the empty tomb, he’s not convinced but just “amazed.” This points out that the Gospel is truly “amazing”—it’s more than we could hope to believe.  Other religions are much more reasonable: Buddhism makes sense as a timeless philosophy, and Islam never claimed that Muhammed worked miracles or rose from the dead. The Gospel of Jesus is just so “supernatural” in the sense of above the natural, beyond what we are accustomed to, not just in its claims about what happened, but also in its promises for what is to come, and its demands on our behavior.  It’s all so “amazing” that it truly takes the power of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, to enable us to believe, to hope, and to love in the way Jesus asks!

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