Feasts & Seasons

The Easter Vigil and Exodus: The Encounter of a God of Awesome Proportions

March 19, 2007

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 While certainly not consistent in all cases, a significant aspect of “keeping vigil” through the nighttime hours is a prolonged liturgy of the word in some ancient traditions. In these traditions a number of scriptural and even non-scriptural readings were proclaimed to an assembled body as it kept a “night watch” before the observance of a major liturgical celebration.  While in contemporary circumstances the number of “vigil liturgies” has declined to the Easter Vigil (and possibly a Pentecost Vigil), the character of the liturgy as a vigil of readings remains.

And readings in the plural it is.  The Easter Vigil prescribes seven readings from the Old Testament, one from the epistles (Romans 6), and a gospel of a resurrection account – a total of nine readings in all.  The proclamation of all these readings is a daunting task, especially among assemblies used to the standard three readings of a Sunday liturgy, or who have come to the Saturday evening Mass expecting a “Saturday-night quickie,” and so sleep in on Easter Sunday morning.  The realization that seven(!) Old Testament readings will precede the gospel is enough to throw any pious church-going Catholic into consternation!

Yet the choice and arrangement of these readings is both quite ancient and highly significant.  Proclaimed together they offer not only the intricacies of the overwhelming panorama of salvation history, but also they exercise a profound memorial that salvation continues to be accomplished in our very day.  Such an understanding is communicated in the context of a full proclamation of the entire vigil of readings, which in itself occupies the largest component of the Easter Vigil.  Yet the liturgical guidelines for the Easter Vigil do provide that for “pastoral reasons” the number of readings may be reduced.  And sadly, quite often parish communities “invent” a pastoral reason to do so.  However, and quite possibly recognizing that exceptions do become the norm, the liturgy does insist that of all the vigil readings, the one from Exodus (14: 15—15: 1) MUST be proclaimed.

A good question is why?  Why of all the readings offered, from Genesis to the prophets, would Exodus be chosen for chief proclamation?  Most preachers at the Easter Vigil, if they do decide to take on the onerous task of incorporating something of the Old Testament readings into their homilies, would perhaps answer that Exodus serves as the great “typology” of the resurrection of Christ.  In the Exodus account, God secures the liberation of the Israelites through their miraculous passage through the Red Sea, out of the clutches of the Egyptians, and into a journey, which will establish them as a nation.  Here Pascha is understood as transforming “passage,” from slavery to freedom.  In Christ this “passage” is writ large, from death to new life, and made a universal experience for all believers.  And thus, the reading serves as an easy connection and an easy integration between promise and fulfillment.

However, if one dares to look a bit more closely at this Exodus account, what it reveals is perhaps an unsettling (though not unfamiliar) depiction of God some might think inconsistent with the Easter celebration.  Here it is the way in which God leads the Israelites through the sea.  People’s recollections without looking at the text would probably say that the evil Egyptians pursue the Israelites into the sea and God, after leading the Israelites out, has the sea cover the Egyptians in punishment for their wickedness. 

The text, though, is a bit more specific.  For as the Egyptians do pursue the Israelites, the text also states that they begin to realize that God is fighting for Israel against them.  The Egyptians have “wised up,” so to speak (and especially after not getting the picture through a variety of plagues!), and they sound the retreat (14: 24-25).  However, the text goes further to state that as they are retreating, it is God who clogs their chariot wheels with mud that they cannot escape.  They are, in fact, entrapped – by God.  It is in this circumstance that God, in quite a vengeful act, calls the waters back upon this entrapped group, drowning the Egyptian army.  And we are left with the chilling and yet matter-of-fact statement, “Not a single one of them escaped” (14: 28).  To add insult to injury the Exodus passage concludes with the liberated Israelites singing and dancing over the destruction of the Egyptians whose bodies are washing up on the shore (15: 1).

In most proclamations the realization of the complexity of this scenario might just pass over our heads.  Yet the image of freedom at a price is meant to remain with us.  How do we justify our “alleluias” after remembering such an event, where the liberation of one people comes at the destruction of another and at the hands of a God, whom we say is all good and all loving?  This question, perhaps, is part of the great paradox of the resurrection, that when faced with not just the annihilation of a people, but with the very plan of God in Jesus Christ, God responds not with equal (and perhaps in some eyes justified) destruction, but rather breathes the new life of resurrection.

We must hear this account, if no other, in order to truly ponder the wonder of the resurrection; that we might be struck with the awesome life-change nature of this act of God.  For the life it offers in the midst of certain destruction manifests that God is indeed “doing something new.”  Ours is indeed a God capable of profound actions, yet no one can be as profound as the offer of life and reconciliation, to which the resurrection is witness.

James Sabak, OFM is a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.


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