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April 15, 2006: EASTER VIGIL

Readings: 

Exodus 14:15-15:1
Isaiah 54:5-14; Romans 6:3-11
Mark 16:1-8

(Ideally all nine readings should be proclaimed tonight. But for reasons of space, I can only comment on four.)

Dennis Weaver's recent death reminded me of something he said in an old radio interview. When asked about his years as Matt Dillon's sidekick in the Gunsmoke series, he pointed out, "All the old movie and TV western heroes have sidekicks. It's the only way the audience can find out what the hero's thinking." Such characters are as much a dramatic device in westerns as soliloquies are in Shakespeare's plays. Without them, we'd never know what's going on in someone's mind.

Fr. Raymond Brown was convinced that our sacred authors use angels in a similar way - as literary devices giving readers the meaning behind specific events. In tonight's gospel, for instance, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome simply come upon an empty tomb. The absence of Jesus' body can be interpreted in different ways: someone could have taken it, or they might have gone to the wrong tomb. We need Mark's "young man" to give the definitive Christian interpretation: "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has been raised up; he is not here."

As comforting as these words are to the women, there's one problem: none of us normally go around with sidekicks, or break into a soliloquy during significant times of our life, nor do angels suddenly appear to provide us with the meaning behind our experiences. We live a life overflowing with unknowns.

It's our responsibility to surface meaning behind the people, events and situations which otherwise pass through our lives in a meaningless procession.

Paul, in tonight's eighth reading, supplies us with the meaning of our first formal step in the faith: baptism. Ignoring highfalutin theological language, the Apostle states that when people are immersed in the water of baptism, they're committing themselves to be immersed just as deeply into this death-dealing world as the historical Jesus was. Yet, when they're lifted up out of the water, they're proclaiming that they're now experiencing the same life which the Father gave Jesus.

Most Scripture scholars believe the Exodus account of the crossing of the sea has been greatly exaggerated both by several hundred years of oral tradition and the sacred author's attempt to show the significance of the event. If it happened exactly the way our passage describes, how could anyone ever gripe and complain about Yahweh bringing them out of Egypt as some of them do later in the wilderness? The author has undoubtedly integrated his or her interpretation into the narrative, so that we, the readers, can instantly see something in the crossing which probably took the original participants years to understand.

That's why it's good to listen carefully to what Yahweh proclaims in our Deutero-Isaiah passage. "Though the mountains leave this place and the hills be shaken, my love will never leave you; nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says Yahweh who has mercy on you."

Perhaps the only way we can understand what God thinks about us or surface the meaning of God's actions in our lives is to return to something the prophet presumed all followers of God would presume: God loves us and will never desert us, even during those moments when we feel unloved and deserted.

Especially on this night, our readings remind us that we live a life of faith. Yet when we want to convey our experience of faith to others, we often have to fall back on as many "devices" as our sacred authors did.