By: James G Sabak, O.F.M.
In the historical development of the Christian liturgical tradition a significant aspect of “keeping vigil” through the nighttime hours is a prolonged liturgy of the word. In some ancient traditions a number of scriptural and even non-scriptural readings were proclaimed to an assembled body as it kept a “night watch” before the observance of a major liturgical feast. While in contemporary circumstances the number of “vigil liturgies” has declined leaving the Easter Vigil, and with the third edition of the Roman Missal a Pentecost Vigil as remnants of a greater historical tradition, the character of these liturgies as vigils of readings remains.
And readings in the plural it is. The Easter Vigil prescribes seven readings from the Old Testament, one from the epistles (Romans 6), and a gospel of a resurrection account – a total of nine readings in all. The proclamation of all these readings is a daunting task, especially among assemblies used to the standard three readings of a Sunday liturgy, or who have come to the Saturday evening Mass on Easter Eve expecting a “Saturday-night quickie,” and so sleep in on Easter Sunday morning. The realization that seven(!) Old Testament readings will precede the gospel is enough to throw any pious church-going Catholic into consternation!
Yet the choice and arrangement of these readings is both quite ancient and highly deliberate. Proclaimed together they offer not only the intricacies of the overwhelming panorama of salvation history, but also they exercise a profound admonition that salvation is ongoing and continues to be accomplished in our very day. Such an understanding is communicated in the context of a full proclamation of the entire vigil of readings, which in itself occupies the largest component of the Easter Vigil. Yet the liturgical guidelines for the Easter Vigil do provide that for “pastoral reasons” the number of readings may be reduced. And sadly, quite often parish communities “invent” a pastoral reason to do so. However, and quite possibly recognizing that exceptions do become the norm, the liturgy does insist that of all the vigil readings, the one from Exodus (14: 15—15: 1) MUST be proclaimed.
A good question is why? Why of all the readings offered, from Genesis to the prophets, would Exodus be chosen for chief proclamation? Most preachers at the Easter Vigil, if they do decide to take on the onerous task of incorporating something of the Old Testament readings into their homilies, would perhaps answer that Exodus serves as the great “typology” of the resurrection of Christ.
In the Exodus account, God secures the liberation of the Israelites, the Pascha, through their miraculous passage through the Red Sea, out of the clutches of the Egyptians, and into a journey, which will establish them as a nation. Here pascha is understood as transforming “passage,” from slavery to freedom. In Christ this “passage” is writ large, from death to new life, and made a universal experience for all believers. And thus, the reading serves as an easy connection and an easy integration between promise and fulfillment.
However, if one dares to look a bit more closely at this Exodus account, what it reveals is perhaps an unsettling (though not altogether unfamiliar from a particular perspective of the Old Testament) depiction of God that some might think inconsistent with the Easter celebration. It is the way in which God leads the Israelites through the sea. People’s recollections without looking at the text would probably say that the evil Egyptians pursue the Israelites into the sea, and God, after leading the Israelites out, has the sea cover the Egyptians in punishment for their wickedness to and oppression of the Hebrews.
The text, though, is a bit more specific. For as the Egyptians do pursue the Israelites, the text also states that they begin to realize that God is fighting for Israel against them. The Egyptians have “wised up,” so to speak (and especially after not getting the picture through a variety of plagues!), and they sound the retreat (14: 24-25). However, the text goes further to state that as they are retreating, it is God who clogs their chariot wheels with mud that they cannot escape. They are, in fact, trapped, and trapped…by God. It is in this circumstance that God, in quite a calm and yet vengeful act, calls the waters back upon this cornered army, drowning the Egyptian forces. We are left with the chilling and yet matter-of-fact statement, “Not a single one of them escaped” (14: 28). To add insult to injury the Exodus passage concludes with the liberated Israelites singing and dancing over the destruction of the Egyptians whose bodies are washing up on the shore (15: 1).
In most proclamations the realization of the complexity of this scenario might just pass over our heads. Yet the image of freedom at a price is meant to remain with us. How do we justify our “alleluias” after remembering such an event, where the liberation of one people comes at the destruction of another and at the hands of a God, whom we say is all good and all loving? It is theodicy on a grandest of scales. The question, perhaps, is part of the great paradox of the resurrection, that when faced not this time with the annihilation of a people, but with extermination of the very plan of God in Jesus Christ, God responds not with equal (and perhaps in many eyes justified) destruction, but rather breathes the new life of resurrection.
We must hear the Exodus account, if we hear any reading from the Old Testament, proclaimed at the Easter Vigil in order to truly ponder the wonder of the resurrection; that we might be struck with the awesome life-transforming nature of this act of God. For the life it offers in the midst of certain ruination manifests that God is certainly “doing something new.” Ours is indeed a God capable of profound actions, yet no action can be as profound as the offer of life and reconciliation, to which the resurrection is witness.
James G Sabak, O.F.M. is a professor of Theology at Providence College.