(Though all nine readings should be proclaimed on this night, space limits me to comment on only four.)
No night of the year is more important for Christians than tonight. It celebrates something which lies at the heart of our faith: Jesus' dying and rising. Unlike Christmas, followers of Jesus have always celebrated Easter. As Marcus Borg points out in his well-received book Speaking Christian, salvation revolves around more than just getting into heaven. It's rooted in the new life and freedom we experience right here and now when we courageously choose to die with Jesus.
No wonder our Jewish/Christian ancestors in the faith insisted that, especially on this night, they again hear the story of Yahweh liberating their ancestors from slavery. If Yahweh hadn't led this ragtag band of runaway slaves dry shod through the sea there would be no Judaism, no salvation history. The plight of these oppressed Hebrews would simply have disappeared into the whirlpool of ancient history.
The earliest followers of Jesus identified with this liberated people. His resurrection paralleled the freedom they'd experienced 1,200 years before.
Like the exiled Israelites Deutero-Isaiah addressed, Jesus' Good Friday disciples also felt abandoned by Yahweh. They were forsaken and grieved in spirit, afflicted, storm-battered and unconsoled." Yet, like those same exiles, they were eventually established in justice, no longer worrying about oppression or destruction.
The turnabout experienced both by the slaves who followed Moses through the sea, and the exiles who believed Deutero-Isaiah's liberating words set the stage for the women who went to Jesus' tomb on the Sunday after his execution. They weren't expecting to find what lay around the corner. "Why do you seek the living one among the dead?" the two angels ask. "He is not here, but he has been raised." Instead of anointing a dead body, they now announce a living Jesus.
As encouraging as these other eight readings are, the most important is the pericope from Paul's letter to the Romans. Those participating in today's celebration aren't just listening to how God saved God's people in the past; they're commemorating their own salvation right here and now. "Are you unaware," Paul asks, "that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."
Except in cases of emergency, all Christians were baptized during the Easter vigil. There was no better time to carry out this ritual. And it was always done by immersion, not by having just a few drops of water poured over one's forehead. The outward sign of this sacrament mirrored the experience of the people who received it. Over a long period of catechumenate they had died to their own value systems and had made the mentality of Jesus of Nazareth their own. They had joined Jesus' death, a prerequisite for receiving Jesus' life. Like him, they had been buried, but then instantly received a new life.
One last point. If one reads the four gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus' appearances, one is impressed with the contradictions contained in the narratives. The people who originally collected these gospels and put them into the same set of Scriptures, also saw those contradictions. They didn't hesitate to put them side by side because they were convinced no two Christians die and rise in the same way. The question tonight isn't, "How did Jesus die and rise?" Rather, "How do we die and rise with him?" One size doesn't fit all.