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APRIL 7, 2012: THE EASTER VIGIL

Readings: 

Genesis 1:1-2:2
Exodus 14:14-15:1
Isaiah 55:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

(Though all nine readings should be proclaimed tonight, space limits my commentary to just four.)

The importance of tonight's celebration cannot be overemphasized. No one had to tell early Christians to participate. The liturgy commemorated something each had experienced: dying and rising with Jesus - an action on which every Christian frequently reflected. Its readings touch the heart of our faith.

That's why we first go back to chapter 1 of Genesis. This more "recent" (500 BCE) of our two Genesis creation myths not only zeroes in on Yahweh's complete control over all things, it also stresses how good God's actions are in our lives. Six times the Priestly author tells us Yahweh found the individual acts of creation "good." ("Very good" after the creation of the man and woman!)

It's a message easy to forget when we're in the middle of our daily dyings with Jesus. Most of the time we concentrate on the death dimension of our actions, not their life-giving aspects.

No matter how many readings we omit tonight, we're obligated to read the Exodus narrative of the Israelites' crossing of the sea. This event was not only the most important action of Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was also the focus of early Christians when they reflected on Jesus' resurrection. It most mirrored their experience of dying and rising with Jesus. Just when the situation seems most hopeless, God steps in and brings life out of death, freedom out of slavery. No one had to preach a homily on Exodus; everyone understood how it applied to the Good Friday/Easter Sunday event.

When the followers of Deutero-Isaiah were putting his oracles into the order they thought best conveyed his ministry, they saved the best for last. The prophet constantly zeroed in on the power of Yahweh's word, even in the midst of the greatest disaster in the Hebrew Scriptures: the Babylonian Exile. When everything seems lost, God's word is still here, as effective as rain and snow coming down from heaven, watering the earth, "making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats . ..." In a parallel way, the life-giving words and experience of Jesus are the source of our imitation of Jesus, even in the midst of our everyday disasters.

Tonight's gospel is especially significant. Most of us have never read the four gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb in one sitting, as the late Raymond Brown always encouraged his students to do. It's the only way to surface the unique resurrection theology of each evangelist.

Many of us mistakenly think the gospel authors composed their empty tomb and risen Jesus narratives as proof for their readers that Jesus had really risen from the dead. Brown presumed the gospel communities already believed Jesus had risen. The evangelists didn't have to prove it. They were much more interested in conveying the meaning of the event than in passing on the fact of the event.

Mark's gospel originally ended after verse 8, mentioning that the women left the empty tomb and said nothing to anyone about the things they'd seen and heard. The subsequent verses were added through the years by well-meaning scribes trying to align Mark's gospel with the other three.

For the first evangelist, the risen Jesus is simply "out there somewhere." There are no specific appearances, no ascension. "Galilee" is where his disciples lived. That's where they're to surface Jesus as a new creation in their everyday lives. Mark is telling his readers that each Christian comes across the risen Jesus in different people, different situations, different places.

We've yet to even scratch the surface of the implications of that belief.