The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night. April 8, 2023

 

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night. April 8, 2023

Gen. 1: 1 – 2: 2; Gen. 22: 1-18; Ex 14: 15 – 15: 1; Is 54: 5-14; Is 55: 1-11; Baruch 3: 9-15, 32 – 4: 4; Ez 36: 16-17a, 18-28; Rm 6: 3-11; Mt 28: 1-10

Theme: “Go Tell my Brothers to Go to Galilee, and There They Will See Me.”

The liturgy of this Easter Vigil draws on the symbolism of light versus darkness. Darkness is identified with sin, ignorance, and insecurity. The Easter Candle is the symbol of “Christ our light”. Tonight, we heard seven Old Testament and two New Testament readings. The seven Old Testament memorable stories tell us about salvation history. From the beginning, God created the world and called everything good, but sin entered the world, therefore, redemption was needed. So, throughout the readings of the Laws and Prophets, we heard many voices and events of leading Israel and the entire created world back to the fullness of our relationship with God. This is what the liturgy of tonight is about. Through the water of baptism (catechumens will be baptized and the rest of us will renew our baptismal promises), the fullness of our relationship with God will be restored. In this Easter Vigil, you and I participate in the resurrection of our Lord and so become “children of the Light”.

 The first reading (Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 2) makes us recall the moment God brought life to the world. The first thing to be created was the light and the last one was a human being whom God created in his image. There are two important details to note in this story. First, everything that God created, he saw how good it was. As to say, out of great love, God created everything perfectly. Second, God brought into being everything that exists in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. The lesson here is that we must work for six days and keep the seventh day free for rest and worship of God our Maker.

From the passage of our first reading to the story of the test of Abraham, we heard in the second reading (Genesis 22: 1-18), the book of Genesis unfolds the introduction of sin into the world (Adam and Eve) and the subsequent return of chaos (Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel). All these stories demonstrate how far humanity through its arrogance of exploiting creation for its own success falls into sin and consequently moves away from God’s original designs. Chapter twelve of this book brings the story of Abraham with whom God intends to restore the goodness of the original creation. God called Abraham to be the father of a great nation and promised him that his descendants should receive blessings. The future of Abraham’s descendants relies upon his son Isaac. Our second reading then is the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac as a holocaust. For three days Abraham, Isaac his son, and two servants traveled to the site of the sacrifice. We can imagine all sorts of thoughts were running through Abraham’s mind. Visibly, we just saw his obedience put into action. When they arrived at the place, the two servants stayed; Abraham and Isaac proceeded alone to the site. The narrator says that Isaac carried on his shoulders the wood for the fire of the sacrifice. The wood on Isaac’s shoulders metaphorically means all of Israel that is laid upon his shoulders. To his son’s question about the missing sheep for the holocaust, Abrahams answers with a profession of faith: “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust”. (Exodus 22: 8). The test of Abraham is over. God sees how Abraham is devoted to him. The reading ends with God swearing to bless Abraham abundantly and make his descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. (See Genesis 22: 16-18). Isaac was not sacrificed because God would provide a worthy sacrifice; one who would restore the unity of people with God. This worthy sacrifice is Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection we celebrate tonight.

The third reading of tonight (Exodus 14: 15 – 15: 1) continues the story of the salvation of humanity with the account of Moses saving the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. In our first reading, the story of creation, we saw that God created water to provide life for the creatures. Here in the book of Exodus, the water has double symbolisms. On one hand, it is a symbol of a new life for the Israelites as they pass through to safety on dry land. On the other hand, the water of the Red Sea is a symbol of death, as it swallows up and completely destroys the Egyptians. The symbol of “death” signifies that in the water of baptism, we die with Christ; and the symbol of “new life” means that in the same water of baptism, we are reborn and start a new life with our Resurrected Lord. Tonight, priests will bless the Easter Holy water. With this water, the candidates will be baptized, and we Christians will renew our baptismal promises.  This means that tonight, we die with Christ and resurrect with him. So, we start a new relationship with God.

We continue the salvation history with the story of the Babylonian Exile that the prophet Isaiah told us in our fourth reading. (Isaiah 54: 5-14). In the previous reading, we just meditated on the new relationship between God and his chosen people, but in this fourth reading, we meditated on their infidelity to God. The people of Israel who were deported as slaves to Babylon started to assimilate into the surrounding culture and worship the gods of Babylon. Prophet Isaiah then calls them to return home to their land and reminds them who their God is. Notice different names that Isaiah applies to God: “Husband, Maker, the Lord of hosts, Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel”. Isaiah uses the images of “Husband” (God) and “the unfaithful wife” (the Israelites). God is willing to take the people of Israel back if they repent. Isaiah is trying to restore the faith of his people in God’s fidelity. We were “the unfaithful wives”. We had the opportunity to repent during Lent. And now, this resurrection of our Lord we celebrate tonight restores our baptismal relationship with God.

Prophet Isaiah continues to call his people to come to God in our fifth reading. (Isaiah 55: 1-11). The Israelites here are identified as “thirsty people” and “Poor”. God invites them to come to the “water” and to receive free food, milk, and wine. Humanity has the free will to accept God’s invitation or refuse it. That is why God exhorts them to listen to him so that they may have life in a renewed everlasting covenant with Him. This life with God will make them “the missionaries” to attract people to God, as God says, “(…) so Shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you (…)”. (Isaiah 55: 5). Tonight, the candidates will be immersed in, and we Christians are sprinkled with the life-giving waters of baptism. The baptismal water does not discriminate, nor does it distinguish male from female, rich from poor, young from old, black from white. Rather, this water equalizes and makes all of us members of God’s family, disciples of Jesus. The water of baptism also makes us missionaries to attract other people where we live.

The sixth reading of this Easter Vigil is found in the book of Prophet Baruch. (Baruch 3: 9-15, 32 – 4: 4). Here, Baruch is praising “Wisdom” which he says is “the book of the precepts of God”. In this reading, he exhorts the people of Israel to embrace “Wisdom”, which means to embrace the book of the precepts of God as a lasting treasure and the source of life. The Church places this reading into the overall context of salvation history, to remind us that the observance of the commandments of God is necessary for us to be saved. People often forsake God’s Laws because they are distracted by worldly concerns. Prophet Baruch reminds us that if we turn our hearts to “wisdom”, we will not be disappointed. As our relationship with God is renewed through the water of baptism that we receive tonight, we have a choice to make: to follow the commandments of God or not. Baruch ends his hymn by inviting us to receive “wisdom”. He says that “wisdom”, the book of the precepts of God, is the law that endures forever. She existed on earth and moved among people since the foundation of the world. Therefore, “all who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her.” (Baruch 4: 1). Let us then turn and receive “Wisdom” and walk by her light towards splendor as Baruch calls us to. (See Baruch 4: 2-4).

The last Old Testament reading of tonight is the book of the prophet Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 36: 16-17a, 18-28). Like Isaiah and Baruch in our previous readings, Ezekiel also writes his book from the perspective of the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel does not see the Israelites as the victims of the Babylonian conquest. Rather, he holds them responsible for defiling the land and bringing ruin to the nation. (See Ezekiel 36: 16-17a, 18). He even says that it is the Lord himself, not the Babylonians, who scattered the people to captivity, “dispersing them over foreign lands”. (See v. 19). So, God recognizes that the dispersal of the Israelites also defines his name because when the people from other nations see God’s people scattered, they mocked and ridiculed the relationship God has with his chosen ones. To restore the honor of his holy name, God decides to bring Israel back to their own land. (See. V. 24). He made it clear that this decision is not for their sake, but rather for the sake of his holy name.  (See v. 22). We too defile when we sin, whether before or after baptism. This reading calls us to repent and come back to God every time we go astray. Notice what God promises to do to his chosen people as the restoration of his relationship with them: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to clean you from all your impurities, and from all 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.” (Vv. 25-26). This is what happens tonight in this Easter Vigil. The sprinkling of the baptismal water tonight cleanses us from all our sins and restores our relationship with God. We begin this Easter time with a new heart and a new spirit.

We have concluded our contemplation of the mystery of salvation history in seven different stories of the Old Testament. We now turn to the New Testament with the readings from the Epistle and Gospel. We saw how God is intimately involved with the goodness of his creation. He leads his people out of slavery into freedom. In return for all that he has done for us, we are asked to love him and follow his commandments. As we move now to the New Testament readings, we Christians believe that this salvation history that started in the Old Testament comes to a definitive resolution through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus, his life and ministry in our world, and the ultimate gift of his Paschal Mystery (his Passion, Death, and Resurrection).

In his letter to the Romans (Romans 6: 3-11), Saint Paul reminds us that from our baptism, and right now as we renew it tonight, we are baptized into Christ’s death, buried with him, and resurrected with him. So with the Risen Lord, we live now in the newness of life. (See Romans 6: 3-4). “We were buried with Christ through baptism into death” means that we died to ourselves when immersed in the waters of baptism. This means also that we bury all our past, our “old self” so that God raises us to new life. Let us not forget that this “dying with our Lord Jesus and rising up to a new life” is an ongoing process until it is fully realized in eternal life. That is why, every time we feel like we go astray, we must quickly come back to God through the Sacrament of Confession to renew our relationship with God that sins damage.

Our Gospel reading tonight is the account of the resurrection of our Lord according to Matthew. Note that all four Gospels give us the account of the discovery of the empty tomb by women on the first day of the week (Matthew 28: 1-10; Mark 16: 1-6; Luke 24: 1-12; and John 20: 1-18). They differ in the details such as the number of the women, the time of their arrival, the purpose of their visit, whom they met, and what they were told to do. Let us focus here on what Matthew tells us.

Regarding the day, the evangelist says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb after the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning. Since the sabbath ended at sunset, this could refer to Saturday evening, when Sunday, the first day of the week dawned.  Matthew names two women, and the name of the second one is unknown. The purpose of their visit was not to anoint the body of Jesus but “to see the tomb”. In Jewish practices, people go to see the tomb to mourn. So, here Matthew probably means that the purpose of the visit of these two women was to mourn. This shows how they loved Jesus.

Matthew describes the effects of the resurrection of Jesus: an earthquake (which suggests divine presence (see Exodus 19: 18; Psalms 68: 9; 77: 19)), the angel of the Lord with the appearance of lightning and clothing like snow (also suggests divine presence (see Genesis 16: 7; Exodus 3: 2)), the empty tomb, and the appearance of the Risen Christ. The guards of the tomb were shaken with fear of the angel, and all became like dead men. The first word that the angel told the two women was, “Do not be afraid”. (Matthew 28: 5) Later in v. 10, Jesus will tell them the same words, “Do not be afraid”. Why not be afraid? Because Jesus whom they were seeking “Is not here, for he has been raised just as he said”. Then the angel invited them to enter the tomb and see the empty place. (Matthew 28: 5-6). Many of us experience fear in different ways. Fear regarding our health conditions, jobs, how to rear children, how to take care of elderly parents and grandparents, and many more things. The first message that the Resurrection of our Lord brings us is that we should not be afraid anymore. Why? Because our Lord has Risen, he is alive. The way Jesus overcame all fears and is alive is the same way we too, his followers, will overcome our fears. So let us not be afraid.

After their experience with the angel, these two women did an experience with the Risen Lord himself. On their way back home, Jesus appeared to them and greeted them. Pay attention to the three things that they did: “They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.” (Matthew 28: 9b). The resurrection of our Lord makes us approach Jesus through our brothers and sisters. No more distance between us and Jesus, and between us and our fellow humans. Approaching Jesus leads to embracing his feet and doing him homage. The gesture of embracing Jesus’ feet alludes to the service. Resurrection involves service. We are called to serve Jesus through the people. And “doing him homage” refers to prayer. The resurrection of Christ makes us the men and women of prayer. We are called to adore, praise, and worship our Lord every day.

The resurrection of our Lord involves commission. The angel of the Lord and the Risen Christ himself commissioned these two women to go and announce this good news of the resurrection to the disciples (Matthew 28: 7; 10). As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, you and I become missionaries. We are commissioned to bring this news of the resurrection to all people starting in our families, Church, and neighborhood, especially those who still experience fear. Notice the detail about the urgency of the mission of these two women. The angel of the Lord asks them to go “quickly” to tell this good news. And the narrator comments that they went away “quickly” from the tomb. This teaches us that our mission to reach out to the people around us is urgent. Let us bring them the joy and hope of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ urgently. Let us also bring this news of the resurrection to our Church members who for some reason do not come to Church anymore. The mission of the women of our Gospel was also to announce to Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee where they would meet Jesus. Our Galilee today is our local Church, Saint Bartholomew/Saint Augustine, where we meet our Lord in the liturgy of the Eucharist (Mass). Then, we are commissioned to reach out to these Church members and tell them that Jesus is inviting them back to “Galilee”, to our Church where he longs to meet them.

The resurrection of Christ restores the fullness of our relationship with God. We can now approach the Risen Lord, embrace his feet by serving him through our brothers and sisters, and do him homage by becoming men and women of prayer. We are now his missionaries who bring this news of the resurrection everywhere we live, especially to those who experience fear and to our Church and family members. We also tell them that Jesus is inviting them back to Church which is our “Galilee” where they can meet and see Jesus in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Amen.  

Happy Easter!

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD 

 

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