Tonight's second Deutero-Isaiah pericope (our vigil's fifth reading) is one of the most significant passages in Scripture. The prophet treats something that confronts those who seriously try to relate to God in their everyday lives: God's simultaneous immanence and transcendence and the power of God's word.
The former simply refers to God's ability to be as close to us as we are to ourselves, while at the same time as distant from us as the fartherest star in the universe. "Seek Yahweh," the prophet commands, "while he may be found, call him while he is near." But on the other hand, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says Yahweh. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts." Most of tonight's readings revolve around recalling events in which
God's transcendence broke into our ordinary lives, moments in which God's followers experienced a part of God's otherness.
For the ancient Israelites, nothing could compare to the Exodus. In one sea opening instant a rag tagged group of enslaved Egyptian Hebrews morph into Yahweh's free people. Freedom's no longer just a distant dream; it's now part of their everyday existence. In a similar way, Abraham, imitating the child sacrifices of his Canaanite neighbors is eventually led by the messenger/Yahweh to see that life itself is part of God's transcendence; so sacred that it should never be snuffed out for the sake of religious rituals.
For Christians, God's transcendence is best experienced in the risen Jesus; an experience so other that our evangelists can't agree even on the circumstances of the empty tomb's discovery. Notice, how in today's passage, Matthew employs a "sky-diving" angel to interpret the body's absence; a person never encountered in quite that way by any of the women in our other three gospel narratives. Obviously when it comes to experiencing God breaking into our ordinary lives, there's no one-way to explain it. Each evangelist brings out different implications of that life-giving experience. Contradictions abound.
Those hard to explain times when the God who is other enters our lives are terrific. But what's one to do during those periods when God appears infinitely distant from us? That's where Deutero-Isaiah presumes God's word comes into play. "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth ... so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."
When I first learned about the Mass in grade school, the emphasis was always on Jesus becoming present in the bread and wine. It was clear at that point in the celebration that something significant was happening. Just before the priest bent over and deliberately recited the words of consecration, bells rang, special spotlights were turned on and a hushed, reverential silence was imposed on everyone.
Nothing like that happened when God became present in God's word. Most of us couldn't even hear the priest "say the epistle and gospel." Even if we could, it was in a language we - and even some priests -couldn't understand. Besides, during a "high Mass" the choir sang the "gradual" during the first reading. God's word got little or no Catholic respect before Vatican II.
Yet, as we heard in yesterday's Passion Narrative, only through God's word was God present to Jesus on Golgotha. If it was essential for him, then how can any of his followers ignore it?