(Ideally all nine readings should be proclaimed during tonight’s Vigil. But because of space limits, I can only comment on four.)
The fact that seven of tonight’s nine readings are from the Hebrew Scriptures is a sign of the ancient roots of this liturgy. It originally dated from a period before the Christian Scriptures were regarded as Bible. Our Christian ancestors in the faith originally turned to the Hebrew Scriptures to reflect on their experiences of the risen Jesus in their lives. It took two or three centuries before the Christian Scriptures were regarded as authoritative enough to fill that role. (Only after the 1970 reform of the lectionary did we return to the practice of having Hebrew Scripture readings proclaimed during our weekend liturgies.)
Experiencing Jesus alive in their midst created a whole new world for his followers. Though they lived in the same world as everyone else, went to the same jobs, associated with the same people, everything was now different.
For one thing, they didn’t know where, when, or in whom they’d encounter the risen Jesus. Tonight’s Marcan pericope contains our earliest gospel “resurrection narrative.” Though well meaning people through the centuries created at least three different endings for Mark’s gospel, most of today’s scholars (along with the bishops at the Council of Trent) believe this is how the first evangelist actually ended his work; with no appearances of Jesus. We might be disturbed that the surprised women “said nothing to anyone,” yet that doesn’t take away from Mark’s message that Jesus is still “out there,” waiting to meet us.
Just as Abraham, in our second reading, eventually came to understand that Yahweh was a God who, unlike other gods, demanded life instead of human sacrifice, so Jesus’ followers eventually began to understand and imitate his commitment to people rather than to laws.
The freeing element of that commitment to others is one of the reasons our Exodus passage plays an essential role in tonight’s liturgy. It’s the one reading from the Hebrew Scriptures that we’re forbidden to eliminate. When Jesus’ first followers wanted to convey the significance of his dying and rising, their ancestors’ crossing of the sea always came to mind. Walking between those two walls of water would normally have brought certain death. Yet the walls never crashed together. Once the Chosen People reached the other side, these runaway slaves became free men and women.
Yet it’s the second of our two Deutero-Isaiah readings which forced early Christians to zero in on what their lives were like before and after they imitated Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? . . . Come to me heedfully, listen that you may have life.” What a waste before Jesus entered their lives.
The power of Yahweh’s word, essential for Deutero-Isaiah’s life and ministry, is parallel to the word of Jesus in the life and ministry of his followers. “For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful,. . . So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
What a waste of time for someone just to “attend” tonight’s vigil. What a blessing for those who actually participate in it; who see their own lives of dying and rising mirrored in the readings, the Eucharist, and the event we commemorate.