As we gather in the light of the Paschal candle the church spreads before us a Scriptural feast. We hear the story of our salvation in prose and poetry. The first reading from Genesis tells of God bringing order out of chaos. There is beauty in order where things are separated and named. There’s comfort in the rhythm: ‘evening came and morning came.’ This text probably reached its final form while the Israelites were in Exile. Theirs was an experience of profound dislocation and chaos. The writers of Genesis stress the order of creation and this brings hope to a people in exile. They stress too the innate goodness of creation and how each created thing holds within it the potential for life.
Read the whole text during the day.
Tidy out a cupboard or drawer.
Notice how you feel.
The Binding of Isaac
This is perhaps one of the most difficult stories in all of the books of the Hebrew Bible. It can seem that no matter which way you approach it, it remains harrowing and disturbing. If we take a step back and look at the story of God’s promise to Israel as a whole we will see that Isaac’s survival is necessary for God’s promise to be fulfilled. His birth to Sarah was already special and a guarantee that God was faithful. Huge questions arise for us. Would God really expect Abraham to sacrifice his son? What kind of God is this? One of the most helpful way I have found of approaching this text comes from liturgical scholar, Gail Ramshaw. Firstly, she sees the text in the context of Easter, in the light of the Paschal candle. She sees it as a ‘picture of resurrection.’
‘Abraham walks before us holding high the burning flame, and we follow that light to the altar of salvation. Abraham need not abandon his hope of progeny; Sarah need not grieve a dead son; Isaac need not face the sacrificial knife. Although death is right here, all around us, God will provide. We have travelled three days. On this mountain we gather around the fire, and on this mountain life shall be provided.’
How does God provide for you?
Exodus 14:15-15:6; 16-17
Crossing of the Red Sea
We come now to a text which is a touchstone for the whole of the Hebrew Bible. It is through the lens of the Exodus that Israel can look back at her past and have hope for the future. Here God is revealed as a God who acts. As the Israelites emerge from the sea they have moved from slavery to freedom, from fear to awe at God’s deeds. This is a decisive moment in their physical journey and in their journey of faith. They will need this memory as they face the hardships of the wilderness wanderings and the long and sometimes uncertain journey to the Promised Land. As we listen to this story in the light of the Paschal candle we are invited to place ourselves in the Exodus story. Are we still in Egypt? Or have we seen a way open up for us? Have there been times when God has sent us ‘manna’ and ‘water from the rock’? Have we been called to a deeper trust in God? As the Israelites emerge from the Sea they sing a song of thanksgiving and joy. Is this our song tonight?
Think back over your year.
Where have your hardships been?
Where have your blessings been?
Through all of the complexities of Israel’s covenant relationship with God the prophets make appeal to the faithfulness of God, in Hebrew, ‘hesed.’ It’s a word which encompasses steadfastness, loyalty, mercy and love. Israel must face the painful reality that she has wandered from the path of God’s ways. She has not shown herself faithful. In some vivid images Isaiah imagines a new reality for Israel. Israel is no longer to feel abandoned but cherished, protected and loved. Isaiah uses the imagery of Noah and the flood to reassure Israel that no disaster will befall her. So powerful is God’s promise that even if mountains were to disappear, God’s love will never leave the people of Israel.
In the light of the Paschal candle the story of Noah becomes our story. From the chaos of the rising we waters we are rescued and dry land is in sight. We are held safe in God’s steadfast love.This is surely a message for our world today. We’ve felt the chaos of a virus that has overwhelmed us. Our ordinary lives have stood still and we’ve had to call deep on every resource we have. Perhaps we have had the chance in situations of uncertainty to be channels of God’s steadfast love.
Read the full text.
How have you known God’s steadfast love?
I grew up singing John Foley SJ’s song ‘Come to the water’ and so this reading is very familiar to me. The lilting tune conveys for me something of the tenderness of God’s offer and provision.
I’ve managed the monastery kitchen for many years and as result I always notice food details in Scripture. This list of water, corn, wine and milk is in biblical terms something of a banquet. These are foods that satisfy, with complex nutrients. When God speaks to the wearied Israelites in Exile he is offering them the opportunity to build themselves up and to flourish. They won’t even have the worry of how to pay for what they need, as everything will be free.
And this is the mystery of our salvation too. We are invited to a banquet where there is no charge and where there are rich foods to satisfy. The only requirement is that we come with open hearts, with hearts that are eucharistic, ready to give thanks.
For what can you give thanks today?
Baruch 3:9-15; 3:32- 4:4
We continue our journey of salvation with the prophet Baruch. This is likely to be the least well-known of the readings for our Vigil. I don’t think Baruch is used anywhere else in the lectionary. It’s a short work with a clear dynamic of confession of sin, conversion, prayer for God’s mercy and then consolation. Taken as whole we can see its place in our Easter Vigil where we celebrate the passage from sin to freedom, death to life.
Perhaps we also need to imagine ourselves as catachumens in order to enter fully into this reading. The catachumens would have spent Lent being instructed in the teaching of the Church. Here they found a new way, a path of wisdom.
Baruch speaks to a people who find themselves lost and in desolation. His answer to their distress is to urge them to embrace fully God’s law. In following God’s law and walking in the way of God’s commandments they will find peace, strength and understanding. Their longing for life will be met when they embrace the law. Their obedience to the law was not a slavish following of rules but a conversion of the heart. Therein lies true wisdom.
How is God’s wisdom made visible to you in your daily life?
Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-29
‘I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you’
I have heard these words of Scripture roughly every four weeks at Sunday Lauds, during Ordinary Time, for the past 28 years. I know the text by heart and this is a great comfort to me. Tonight, in the light of the Paschal candle, we hear these words addressed to us.
There is something very re-assuring about the image of water being poured over us. From the bathing of a baby to the care of the elderly, this action soothes, cleanses and refreshes. Once we are cleansed God promises to do something powerful for us. He will give us new hearts.
In Hebrew, the heart is the place of human thought and spiritual life. It’s more than our emotions, it’s the place of our motivations and thoughts. Ezekiel is offering us a tremendous message of hope when he tells us that God will give us new hearts. This is a complete renewal of our relationship with God.
Imagine water being poured over you.
Imagine that God gives you a new heart. How do you respond?
When we come to our final reading at the Easter Vigil we have the chance to step back and survey the land. We’ve traced the story of our salvation through all of its ups and downs and we know that we have reached our resting place. Our resting place is ‘in Christ’. This is Paul’s major theological motif. Everything that we say about our life of faith is from the perspective of being ‘in Christ’.
Paul spells it out for us. Our baptism inserted us into the life of Christ as we went down into the waters of the tomb with him. We died with Christ and we died to sin. And just as Christ was raised to new life, we share the hope that new life will be ours too.
Over the past year we have seen the dynamic of suffering and death across the whole of our world. For those who have lost a loved one, talk of the paschal mystery and the promise of new life after death may seem incomprehensible and even insensitive. There are no easy answers. Perhaps this is where we can call on our belief in the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ we are called to be channels of Christ’s resurrected life. Every small act that brings hope to someone in despair is Christ’s risen life in the world. It’s our hands and our hearts that make this real.
How can you share Christ’s risen life today?