The Easter Vigil’s Gospel reading is Matthew 28:1–10:
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:1–9:
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
Several years ago, my wife and I began attending the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday evening, rather than Sunday morning Mass as we had done before. We had attended our first Vigil Mass for a friend of ours who had converted from atheism to Catholicism and who received the sacraments for the first time that evening. This took place before my discernment into the diaconate and my desire to delve more deeply into the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of my Catholic faith, and in part inspired that call. We have gone ever since to Easter Vigil, and for the last few years I have had the privilege of being a lector at it, as I was this evening.
What draws me to this celebration, the longest Mass of the year? Of all our holy days and observations during the year, the Easter Vigil provides the most encompassing vision and celebration of the core of our faith: the plan of salvation. It starts in total darkness, which recedes gradually as we read aloud from the scriptures beginning with Genesis 1:1. We read of God’s love and goodness through creation to Abraham, from Moses and the Exodus to Isaiah, Baruch, Ezekiel, and through the Psalms to the Gospel. As the plan for salvation unfolds, we grow closer to the light, until Christ is resurrected and we are fully within it.
It is a celebration of victory and surrender, of falling and being lifted up, a celebration of the love of God for us even with our infirmities and unworthiness. We celebrate the joy of knowing that love, which Jesus demonstrated by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves — overcoming our predilection to sin and defeating death, opening the last mile of salvation for those who choose it.
This Mass provides us a comprehensive look at that plan of salvation of which we glimpse in normal Masses. It reminds us of our fortune, even in the midst of our pain and suffering, of knowing what our loving Lord has planned for us. Tonight I read from Baruch 3, in which the prophet reminded Israel of that good fortune at a time when most had forgotten it.
Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life: listen, and know prudence! How is it, Israel, that you are in the land of your foes, grown old in a foreign land, defiled with the dead, accounted with those destined for the netherworld? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom! Had you walked in the way of God, you would have dwelt in enduring peace. Learn where prudence is, where strength, where understanding; that you may know also where are length of days, and life, where light of the eyes, and peace. Who has found the place of wisdom, who has entered into her treasuries?
The One who knows all things knows her; he has probed her by his knowledge— the One who established the earth for all time, and filled it with four-footed beasts; he who dismisses the light, and it departs, calls it, and it obeys him trembling; before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice; when he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him: He has traced out the whole way of understanding, and has given her to Jacob, his servant, to Israel, his beloved son.
Since then she has appeared on earth, and moved among people. She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her. Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor. Give not your glory to another, your privileges to an alien race. Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!
When reading this for the first time in preparation for the Easter Vigil Mass, it sounded to me like a rebuke — and it is, of course. Baruch’s prophetic ministry took place during the Assyrian exile of the northern kingdom of Israel and the second wave of the Babylonian exile from Judea. The Israelites and the Judeans both found themselves captive in “the land of their foes … defiled” for their disobedience to God and refusal to submit to His will for salvation. Baruch tells Israel that they find themselves in this position through their own choices and the hardness of their hearts. They abandoned the Lord, not the other way around.
But Baruch delivers much more than a rebuke. He offers a promise — the promise that God’s love for them continues, as it does for all His creation. He waits for His people to respond to Him, and will be ready when they do. In order for the people to do so, He has sent the prophets to speak His word and to call them back to the path of salvation — and they should rejoice in that knowledge. “Blessed are we, O Israel,” he says to the people who have been marched into slavery and oppression, “for what pleases God is known to us!”
This foreshadows the coming of the Messiah as well. We have marched ourselves into slavery, defiled ourselves by sin with the dead, but we are not destined for the netherworld unless we choose it. The line of the prophets point directly to Jesus, who comes to make even more plain what pleases God in the Gospels. We have even more reason to rejoice today, as the death and resurrection of the Word, the Son of God demonstrated once and for all just how much God loves us, and how plainly He has laid out the plan for our own salvation. We can now rejoice in His goodness, and in Christ’s victory, and walk that path by wisdom’s light toward the splendor of eternal life.
Jesus Christ is risen today — hallelujah!
The front-page image is a medieval tapestry on display at the Vatican Museum; the photo is from my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.