APRIL 7, 2007: Easter Vigil
(Ideally, all nine readings should be proclaimed tonight. But because of space limits, I can only comment on four.)
No other liturgy compares to this night's celebration. When Jesus' earliest followers tried to explain the impact of the resurrection on their lives, their Jewish faith and culture led them to create analogies from the greatest event in their history: the Exodus. That's why, no matter what readings we foolishly leave out, we're obligated to include the Exodus 14 narrative of the crossing of the sea. It begins with Yahweh's command, "Tell the children of Israel to go forward!"
These words set the theme for our Easter reflection. Probably the most difficult action for people of faith is simply to go forward.
When Yahweh ordered the runaway Hebrew slaves to head into the sea, they thought it to be a step into death, not step into the most life-giving event they'd ever experience. Their trust in God's ability to lead them to life and freedom is the only force impelling them to go forward.
No wonder Paul, a Christian Jew, writes so eloquently about being buried in the waters of baptism and rising into new life with Jesus. His people annually commemorate a similar 1,200 year old dying and rising experience.
Our four sacred authors are convinced that the one obstacle standing in our way of going forward is a belief that going in such a direction is against "common wisdom." As Luke mentions in our gospel pericope, when the women inform the eleven of what they found at the tomb that Sunday morning, "their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them." We always feel more secure when the majority of those around us agree with the direction in which we're moving. To commit ourselves to the movement of a small minority can't win us lots of friends or influence many in our community.
Here our Deutero-Isaiah passage kicks in. I always remind my students that prophets rarely put their oracles into the order we find them in the books bearing their names. Only after the prophet's death will his or her followers sit down, reflect on their mentor's influence in their lives and arrange their sayings in the pattern which best conveys that influence. Deutero-Isaiah's disciples saved tonight's words for the very end of their collection, a summary of what they believed the prophet was all about.
They begin by assuring the Israelites that Yahweh will freely give them what they're really seeking in life. Then the prophet reminds them of the contradiction all followers of God face daily. God is both the closest and the most distant element in their lives.
But the last two verses best apply to our go forward theme. "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, 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."
We go forward into our daily deaths only because we believe God's word that such actions will bring us life. As Christians we share in the dream which God's word instilled in Jesus' heart 2,000 years ago; the word-based dream he shared with his first followers. No wonder Luke's Easter Sunday angels insist that the women, "Remember what (Jesus) said to you . . . ."
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton recently reminded his Detroit community, "It's important for us to develop our dream, to see a vision of what could be - what will be, if we allow God to work in and through us."
Those who let themselves be led forward by trusting God's word will experience the life that word gives, the same life Jesus eventually received by trusting in God's word.