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Vigil on the Holy Night of Easter
March 31, 2018
Reginald H. Fuller

This is the archetypal liturgy of the whole Church year. It consists of four parts: (1) the service of light with the Easter proclamation; (2) the Liturgy of the Word; (3) the Liturgy of Baptism; (4) the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The origins of the light service are probably pagan, and their Christian meaning is uncertain though strangely moving. It is perhaps well, therefore, that it is recommended that this ceremony be performed outside the church, and suggested that other ceremonies more adapted to the culture of a particular region may be substituted. (Some Anglicans carry out the ceremony of the new fire after the prophecies, so that its kindling marks the transitus of the Messiah.)

The Easter proclamation focuses upon the three main themes of the vigil service: the deliverance of Israel in the Exodus (“This is the night when you first saved our fathers”); the baptismal deliverance of the new Israel (“This is the night when Christians everywhere ... are restored to grace”); the resurrection of Christ (“This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains ...”).

Seven readings from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament are assigned to the Easter Vigil. Some may be omitted if circumstances warrant it; however, it is recommended that three selections from the Old Testament be read before the epistle and gospel. The third reading from Exodus about the escape through the Red Sea should always be used, as the rubrics advise.

Reading I: Genesis 1:1 – 2:2 (long form); 1:1, 26-31a (short form)

It is appropriate to read the story of the first creation on the night that celebrates the inauguration of the new creation. The Genesis story is not to be read as historical narration. Its importance is proclamatory: God is the source of the whole creative process; it depends at each moment on God.

Human beings comprise the one species selected by God to bear God’s image, to have an I-thou relationship with the source of all being. The reading of this story further points toward the new creation and restoration of the divine image, which had been defaced by sin.

Responsorial Psalm: 104:1-2a, 5-6, 10, 12-14, 24, 35c; or 33:4-7, 12-13, 20, 22

Psalm 104 is a hymn of praise to God for his works in creation. The dominant theology of the Spirit in the wisdom literature (“the Spirit of God fills the world”) stresses the work of the Spirit in the created order.

By contrast, the New Testament concentrates almost exclusively on the eschatological work of the Spirit. The pneumatology of the New Testament is conditioned by its Christology.

When the psalmist speaks of the “renewal” of creation through the Spirit, he is probably thinking of no more than the renewal of nature at springtime.

But in Christian use it can be reinterpreted to mean the eschatological renewal of creation, a renewal of which the Church is the first fruits. 

Psalm 33 is in part a hymn praising God for his creative activity, a theme that is highlighted in the second stanza of the present selection.

When this stanza speaks of God’s creating the universe by his word, it is thinking of the Genesis story that has just been read: God created the world by saying, “Let there be light,” etc.

In later development the word of God was hypostatized (Wisdom of Solomon, Philo), and finally in the Fourth Gospel it was identified with the Logos, which thus eventually became the second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Reading II: Genesis 22:1-18 (long form); 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18 (short form)

Special interest attaches to the Genesis 22 reading because already in Jewish tradition the “binding” of Isaac was associated with the Passover. The story was expanded to bring out, among other things, the following points: Isaac freely consented to die as a sacrifice, and his sacrifice was vicarious, available for the sanctification of humankind.

The Isaac story was therefore ready for the early Christians to use as a type of Christ’s sacrifice, which exactly what Paul does in Romans 8:32. There are even suggestions in Judaism that Isaac’s reprieve was a kind of death and resurrection, thus making it eminently fitting for use at the Easter Vigil.

Responsorial Psalm II: 16:5, 8-11

This psalm is used on the thirty-third Sunday of the year in series B, where it is a direct response to the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. Here it is a response to the binding of Isaac, in which the Church Fathers saw a type of Christ’s resurrection.

Reading III: Exodus 14:15 – 15:1

The Exodus reading is the most important reading in the whole series, an importance underlined by the requirement that this passage must invariably be used. It appears that its use on this occasion goes back to the earliest days of Christianity and was probably taken over from the Jewish paschal liturgy.

The crossing of the Red Sea is the supreme type of Christ’s death and resurrection, and of the Christian’s dying and rising again with him in baptism (see 1 Cor 10:11).

Responsorial Psalm III: Exodus 15:1-6, 17-18

This, the Song of Moses, is the most famous of the Old Testament psalms outside the psalter. Opinions have varied as to its antiquity. Earlier critics supposed it to be a much later composition because of its apparent references to later history; but recently it has been thought to have originated not long after the settlement of Canaan (the Song of Miriam, in Ex 15:21, is thought to be actually contemporary with the Exodus). 

Perhaps the solution is that there was a primitive nucleus to which stanzas were added later as history unfolded. We can well imagine its being used liturgically in the ancient Passover celebration, all through, it presumes the Canaanite idea of warfare as a sacred function.

Reading IV: Isaiah 54:5-14

The historical situation in which Second Isaiah delivered his prophecies was Israel’s impending return from Exile in Babylon. Much of the language used to describe this return was drawn from the language used to narrate the earlier event of the exodus (see especially Is 40:1-5).

Since the exodus came to be regarded as a type for, and a quarry of language for the description of, the Christ event, it is natural that the language of the return from exile should be similarly used.

Christ’s death and resurrection are the church’s return from Babylonian captivity as well as her exodus from Egyptian bondage.

In this passage the image of Yhwh’s marriage with Israel is picked up from the book of Exodus and reapplied to the exile. In the Exodus, God had first taken Israel as a young bride; in the exile, he had cast her off like a “wife of man’s youth.”

But this was only for a brief moment. Now, in his great compassion, Yhwh is taking her back. (Note the frequency  of the word “compassion,” a key word in the gospel record of Jesus’ deeds.)

Another image appropriated in this passage is that of the Flood. The exile is like the Flood, with Israel as a storm-tossed ark. Again, the Flood and its abatement provide an image for speaking about the Christ event (see 1 Pet 3:20-21).

A third picture is that of the restoration of the city of Jerusalem, rebuilt with precious jewels. This imagery is also taken up in the New Testament and applied to the consummated kingdom, and therefore already mirrored in the life of the earthly Church.

Responsorial Psalm IV: 30:1, 3-5, 10-11a, 12b

In origin, this psalm is the thanksgiving of an individual for deliverance from death (see first stanza and refrain). Already in Israel, when it was taken up into the hymnbook of the temple, this psalm would have acquired a more corporate meaning, and in Christian usage it celebrates the paschal transitus from sorrow to joy: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (second stanza), and “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing” (third stanza).

Reading V: Isaiah 55:1-11

This reading is an invitation to the eschatological banquet anticipated in the paschal Eucharist: “Come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk” (Is 55:1). It is the feast of the new covenant (Is 55:3) with the messianic king (“my steadfast, sure love for David,” Is 55:3).

In this banquet the presence of  Yhwh is near (Is 55:6) and available for participation—but on one condition: penitence and the reception of pardon for sin (Is 55:6-7).

For this moment all of our Lenten devotions, our going to confession and receiving absolution, have been preparatory; all these exercises are gathered up into this reading. God’s ways transcend all our ways (Is 55:8). God calls into existence things that do not exist, and gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17).

God has raised Jesus from the dead and has raised us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness (see the epistle). In the mission of Christ, God’s word did not return to him empty but truly accomplished that which God had purposed in sending it (Is 55:11).

Responsorial Psalm V: Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6

Although this passage (the first song of Isaiah, EcceDeus) occurs in Proto-Isaiah, its spirit is more akin to Deutero-Isaiah. It celebrates the return from exile as a second Exodus and is a new song, patterned on the original song of Moses, as the close verbal parallelism between the third stanza and Exodus 15:1 shows.

As in the fifth reading, we have here the same fourfold pattern: exodus/return from exile/Christ’s death and resurrection/the foundation of the Church and our initiation into it through baptism and the Eucharist.

Reading VI: Baruch 3:9-15, 32 – 4:4

This passage is typical of the way in which the later Jewish Wisdom literature adapted the earlier prophetic teaching about salvation history. The old language of salvation history survives: “Why is it, O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies?”—language that is reminiscent of the exile and of the hymns of Deutero-Isaiah.

But the exile is no longer located in a geographical Babylon; it has become exile from the true knowledge of heavenly wisdom. Wisdom is here equated with the Torah, or Jewish Law, and at the same time hypostatized or personified.

The phrase “she appeared upon earth and lived with humankind” (Bar 3:37) is especially interesting for the student of the New Testament, for it shows how the wisdom speculations of pre-Christian Judaism provided the language and thought-patterns in which the New Testament formulated its faith in the Incarnation (see Jn 1:14). The earlier appearances of Wisdom are now consummated in Christ.

The inclusion of such Wisdom literature among the readings for the Easter Vigil is a salutary reminder that the images of Egyptian bondage and Babylonian exile are now to be taken figuratively.

They are descriptions especially applicable to modern men and women, for they speak of alienation from God, a sense of God’s absence. This was one of the elements of truth behind the “death of God” theology that was in vogue in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Responsorial Psalm VI: 19:8, 9, 10, 11

Psalm 19 falls into two distinct halves, perhaps indicating the combination of two different psalms. The first half is a nature psalm and praises God for his gift of sunlight. The second half, beginning with Psalm 6:7, praises God for the gift of the light of his law.

Today’s selection is taken from the second half and follows appropriately upon the reading from Baruch, since wisdom and law (Torah) are closely akin, if not identical.

The refrain highlights the truth that the Lord has the words of everlasting life. The word of God is his self-communication.

This self-communication was present in creation, in Israel’s Torah, but above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, as the Johannine prologue puts it, thereby meaning the whole history of Jesus.

The words of everlasting life are therefore spoken supremely in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is God’s final word to humankind, his final act of self-communication, which is the source of “everlasting life,” authentic existence.

Reading VII: Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28

This is another passage that speaks of the return from exile in Babylon (and other countries—see Ezekiel 36:24). Ezekiel, like the earlier prophets, understands the exile as punishment for Israel’s sin (Ezek 36:19).

The return, therefore, must be accompanied by an act of purification: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you ... ” (Ezek 36:25), the gift of a new heart (that is, one that is sensitive to the demands of God’s law), and a new spirit (Ezek 36:26).

Christian faith sees all these purposes fulfilled, not in the return, but in the death and resurrection of Christ, whose benefits are made available by baptism with its accompanying ceremonies (the sprinkling of water and the gift of the Spirit).

Responsorial Psalm VII: Psalm 42:3, 5; 43:3, 4 (baptism); or Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6; or Psalm 51:10-13, 16-17 (no baptism)

The use of this psalm (Psalms 42 and 43 are really one psalm) at the Easter Vigil is a very ancient tradition. It was originally an individual lament. The psalmist is staying by the springs of the Jordan at the foot of Mount Hermon, lamenting his absence from Jerusalem and from the worship at the temple.

Taken in its liturgical context here (recall the former use of Psalm 43 in the priest’s preparation before Mass), the psalm expresses the worshiper’s sense of God’s absence and his/her longing to participate in the liturgy and to be restored to the presence of God. 

Psalm 51 may serve as the Responsorial Psalm when baptism is not celebrated at the Easter Vigil. A different selection of verses from this psalm as used on the first Sunday of Lent (in year A).

The first stanza picks up the reference to the “new heart” of Ezekiel 36:26. The psalm forms a fitting conclusion to our Lenten devotions. Participation in the Eucharist is the supreme moment when we partake in the forgiveness of sins that has been made available by the Christ-event.

Epistle: Romans 6:3-11

This Epistle marks the decisive turning point in the vigil service. Here we move from the Old Testament to the New, from type and prophecy to fulfillment (hence the rubric that the altar candles be lit at this point).

The basic significance of the vigil service lies in the experience of this turning point. This is the transitus, the passing from darkness to light, from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from the old age to the age to come.

This transition, accomplished in our baptism, is possible for us because Christ made it first. But it has to be renewed constantly.

Note that the verbs that speak of our dying with Christ are in the past tense (that was accomplished once for all in baptism), while the verbs that speak of our resurrection are hypothetical and future, and depend upon our moral obedience.

Our dying to sin with Christ has to be renewed constantly by a daily decision (see 1 Cor 15:31a).

Responsorial Psalm: 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23

Selections from this psalm are frequently used in the Easter season. With its reference to the rejection of the stone and its subsequent elevation to be the chief cornerstone, this was perhaps the earliest Old Testament passage that the primitive community applied to the death and resurrection of Christ.

It was the basic Old Testament passage for the “no-yes” interpretation of the death and resurrection: the death of Jesus as Israel’s (and all humanity’s) “no” to Jesus, and the resurrection as God’s vindication of him, his “yes” to all that Jesus had said and done and suffered during his earthly life.

Gospel: Mark 16:1-7

The nucleus of historical fact behind this tradition is that Mary Magdalene (and other women? Their names vary; only Mary Magdalene figures in all accounts) visited the grave of Jesus on Sunday morning, and claimed to have discovered it empty.

We cannot get back behind the women’s testimony. All we can do is to take their report at their word, as the first disciples did.

For the disciples and Peter welcomed their report as congruous with the conviction they had formed (in Galilee, as we should maintain) as a result of the appearances.

The community then shaped the women’s report into a vehicle for the proclamation of the Easter kerygma by means of an angelic message (Mark mentions a “young man,” but his white clothing is generally understood to suggest an angelic figure).

This, of course, is not historical description but theological interpretation. The women’s response was a typical biblical reaction to an epiphany—fear, wonder, and silence.

To this traditional account Mark has added an element (Mk 16:7) that somewhat dislocates the story (cf. Mk 14:28, a complementary addition from the evangelist), but serves to point to the appearances in Galilee, first to Peter and then to the Twelve.

Why does Mark make these additions and yet does not relate the appearances? In my opinion, he could not do so because he had no appearance stories available in his community. All he knew was the tradition that the risen One appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve (see 1 Cor 15:5), and he indicated this by his addition of Mk 16:7 to the angelic message.

Why did Mark do this? Because it is in the Easter revelation that all the misunderstanding of the disciples, so emphasized by Mark, is cleared up—their forsaking of Jesus and, in the case of Peter, denying him.

The disciples are finally restored and commissioned to proclaim the gospel (Galilee in Mark’s symbolism means the place where the proclamation of the message begins; see Mk 1:14-15).

Reginald H. Fuller
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