Monday, April 4, 2011

The Great Vigil of Easter Years A,B,C


  • At the Liturgy of the Word Year A,B,C

The Story of Creation:Genesis 1:1-24a Most likely written while the Jews were exiled in Babylon, this could serve as a liturgical text meant to remind that God is the giver of the gift of the abundance, beauty, and exuberance of life. Psalm 136:1-9,23-26 Creation itself and those times when God has intervened "when we were low" are the continuing reminders that God's "kindness is forever."

The Flood Genesis 7:1-5,11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 For reasons that could seem arbitrary and harsh because they remain known to God alone, God initiates a fresh start with creation and humankind. Psalm 46 The psalmist insists that there are times so catastrophic that we can only "let go" and trust that God is at work somehow, someway, somewhere.

Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac Genesis 22:1-18 God makes an unreasonable demand for reasons known to God only. Initially these tests are strange even scary, such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his and Sarah's only child, Isaac. But we should learn/trust that in the long view, God's larger purpose is to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, meaning out of senselessness.
Psalm 16 A psalm of confession: despite life's vagaries, the Lord sustains.

Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 The most spectacular display of God's deliverance in Israel's long history: God leads God's people out of slavery from an ancient superpower. As in the other defining displays of God's intervention-- God's call to Abraham and wandering in the wilderness before entry into the promised land-- God requires uprooting, movement, leaving behind the familiar, discovering something new only in a new place. Canticle (Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18) Only God could have performed such a spectacular reversal of fortunes and saved God's people.

Salvation offered freely to all
Isaiah 55: 1-11 " 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways, ' says the Lord." Despite our anxieties, confusion and reluctance, we are to trust God's ways. Canticle (Isaiah12:2-6) A summons to sing. The song recalls God's actions in the past, remembers past benefits and gives thanks.

In praise of Wisdom Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4 Wisdom, the cumulative insights over many generations' experience with God, is a reliable aid to follow the sometimes ambiguous commandments of God. Or The gifts of Wisdom Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21, 9:4b-6 Wisdom is a beautiful woman who, when she speaks, we immediately recognize her integrity and veracity. Psalm 19 The same Creator of creation is the giver of life-sustaining commandments.

A new heart and a new spirit Ezekiel 36:24-28 Traumatized by captivity, Ezekiel rails against the Jews for their infidelity, but then offers assurances of restoration. Psalms 42 and 43 Feeling the alienation form God while in exile, the psalmist pleads for God's presence.

The valley of dry bones Ezekiel 37:1-14 A rare and relatively late expression in Hebrew scriptures that God's rescue actions can even bring life out of death or extend beyond death. Psalm 143 A plea to God for assurance and protection.

The gathering of God's people Zephaniah 3:14-20 A promise of God's direct presence among God's people. Psalm 98 This choir and orchestra join the universal hymn of praise to God.

  • At the Eucharist Year A
Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114: Matthew 28:1-10

Paul draws a (or repeats an existing) stark contrast between one's life before and after baptism; a contrast as significant as between the death and resurrection of Christ.

The psalmist offers a euphoric depiction of God's deliverance from slavery-- the sea flees, mountains dance and solid rock becomes a stream of water.

While none of the gospel writers attempts to describe the resurrection, Matthew presents the most dramatic report of the discovery of the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" come to the tomb on Saturday evening (not Sunday morning, as in Luke and Mark), not with ointments for burial, because the tomb had already been sealed by the chief Priests and was being guarded by Roman soldiers.  Only Matthew's narrative reports an earthquake, as it did when Jesus died.  An angel descends, rolls back the stone and shows the women that the tomb is already empty.  That descending angel, whose appearance is like lightning and clothing as white as snow, is a distinct reminder of the angel of the apocalypse in the Book of Daniel.   For the third time in Matthew's narrative, an angel appears with specific instructions.  (In Matthew's birth narrative, an angel tells Mary, then later Joseph, the crucial role each is to play.)  These two women, who had just been bystanders so far, now emerge in the narrative as the ones charged by the Risen Lord himself to tell the others what they have witnessed and to carry the news that "my brothers" should go back to Galilee where Jesus will rejoin them. They embrace his feet, but Jesus urges them to get on with their task: "do no be afraid; go and tell my brothers [no longer the more formal "disciples"] to go to Galilee; there they [too] will see me."

The nine possible readings and responsive psalms/canticles (from which two are read, always including the story of Exodus) which comprise the liturgy of the Word for the Great Vigil include the foundational demonstrations of God's relationship to humankind through the history of Israel and the promise of God's continuing participation. These are no appeals to human reason. Rather, there are bold assertions: all that exists is only because of God's actions for reasons known only to God and God continues to take corrective actions without always full disclosure to us of how or where or when or through whom. Our personal experience of life and indeed all human history can be seen, if we chose to see it that way, as infused with meaning, purpose, goal, expectations of justice because God initiated it and sustains it in God's unique ways. The choice we make is as stark and basic as dark/light, despair/hope, indifference/enthusiasm, isolation/community, life/death.

From the earliest tradition of the church, baptism is identified as nothing less than believers' participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is meant to be the defining moment of one's life. We can imagine who we would be without it and with it and the difference is all the difference in our world.

In her memoir, Virginia Woolf describes the crucial role of "sudden shocks" in her life. She says they are a "revelation of some order," "a token of some real thing behind appearances and I make it real by putting it into words...." She later describes how her novel To The Lighthouse, which is generally regarded as her greatest, came to her in a sudden rush as she was walking around Tavistock Square. In that novel she puts into words the content of one of those "sudden shocks" of life. She writes in her wonderful prose/poetry. "As summer neared, as the evenings lengthened, there came to the wakeful, the hopeful, walking the beach, stirring the pool, imaginations of the strangest kind-- of flesh turned to atoms which drove before the wind, of stars flashing in their hearts, of cliff, sea, cloud, and sky brought purposely together to assemble outwardly the scattered parts of the vision within. In those mirrors, the minds of men, in whose pools of uneasy water in which clouds forever turn and shadows form, dreams persisted, and it was impossible to resist the strange intimations which every gull, flower, tree, man, woman and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once withdrew) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules: or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the process of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure. Moreover, softened and acquiescent, the spring with her bees humming and gnats dancing threw her cloak about her, veiled her eyes, averted her head, and, among passing shadows and flights of small rain seemed to have taken upon her a knowledge of the sorrows of mankind."

We are creatures who do not live so much by "crystals" of "absolute good" that are alien to everyday life. We are, however, blessed with occasional "sudden shocks" that illuminate life and we see, even "among the sorrows of mankind" its meaning, joy and purpose for ourselves and for every other person. The ancient biblical promises and the Easter announcement prime us, urge us, prepare us, alert us, train us for those "sudden shocks" which show us instantly the full meaningfulness of life. And when we have those "sudden shocks," the ancient biblical promises and the Easter announcement give us the words to describe them and make them real. 

     All night had shout of men and cry
          Of woeful women filled his way;
     Until that noon of sombre sky
           On Friday, clamour and display 
     Smote him; no solitude had he,
     No silence, since Gethsemane

     Public was death; but power, but might,
          But life again, but victory,
     Were hushed within the dead of night,
           The shuttered dark, the secrecy, 
     And all alone, alone, alone
     He rose again behind the stone.

                            Alice Meynell