First Reading, Genesis 1:1-2:2

A Theological Reflection: Notice all the separating that the Creator does in this familiar story. First God separates the light from darkness. On the second day, God made a dome to separate the celestial waters. On the third day, God separated the water below the dome from the land that can now emerge. This permits the earth to be fruitful thereafter.

Think about your own birth. When the waters enclosing you in your mother's womb were separated, you could come forth, see the light, and begin to be fruitful. Think about the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt through the separated waters of the Red Sea (tonight's Third Reading). Think about your rebirth in the waters of baptism.

Our Liturgical Setting: It's these comparisons, to the exodus and to our own birth and rebirth, that make this reading appropriate for the Easter Vigil. And it's the separations that make the creation story a salvation story. That is, this chapter of Genesis depicts God as creating the world by saving it from chaos (the formless void), by bringing order to it. The same school of thought also gives us the exodus story, and wants us to see the creation as a prototype for the exodus. There, similarly, God creates a people by rescuing them from slavery. (For more on this relation, see Lector's Notes author's 1990 paper on late medieval Christian theology and Copernicus.)

Proclaiming It: So as lector tell this story not with scientific detachment (this was never meant to be a scientific account). Rather, tell it with passion for the loving God who is marvelously preparing a fit habitat for all orders of creatures, of whom we are the crown. At the end of each day's work, when you say that God saw that it was good, put into your voice the pride of a satisfied artisan. When, after the creation of humankind on the sixth day, you say it was very good, make that sound very proud, and different from the conclusions of the prior paragraphs.

Second Reading, Genesis 22: 1-18

The Historical Situation: One interpretation (though far from the only interpretation) of Jesus' death and resurrection sees it as a sacrifice. So on the night of our most solemn commemoration of Jesus' dying and rising, we look back to a time when our ancestors in the faith learned one lesson about the kind of sacrifice God really wanted. (See another lesson about God's preferences in sacrifice in Lector's Notes for Ash Wednesday.)

This story is all the more poignant because Abraham and Sarah had been childless so long and so unhappily until the birth of Isaac. In itself, the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac carries great significance. Various scholars have pointed out these themes in it:

Proclaiming It: So how shall you proclaim this? Read the passage slowly, telling the story in a matter-of-fact way, until the last paragraph. Make this last declaration most solemn. It's the great promise upon which the People of the Promise, our ancestors in the faith, were founded. "All the nations of the earth shall find blessing" in the people constituted here. We believe that blessing is the spread of the good news about Jesus, the descendant of this faithful Abraham.

Third Reading, Exodus 14:15-15:1

Proclaiming It: This passage begins rather abruptly, but its context was set for us Holy Thursday. Refresh yourself by re-reading that night's Exodus selection, if necessary. When you start this passage, put yourself in the place of God. You're supremely confident, but you're talking to Moses, whose credulity has been getting more and more strained. Now you're about to make your wildest statement yet, that if Moses will just hold up his stick, he can split the sea in two!!! You have to speak to this man, thunder at him, with conviction. Make a believer out of him. As lector, you want the congregation to feel the tension: God has brought the rebel slaves pretty far, but now their backs are to the sea. Can God do something still greater than everything that's gone before, or are we at last doomed?

The second paragraph is a bit confusing. Reading it is like reading about the ebb and flow of a Civil War battle without having a map at hand. Try to picture the scenes in your mind, then read it with the purpose of conveying that picture. When you read the part about the Israelites actually marching ahead with the water like walls beside them, put their awe into your voice.

Recite the third paragraph with rapid urgency: the Egyptians are in hot pursuit, God paralyzes them with a blast and they retreat.

In the fourth paragraph, the picture seems to be this: The Egyptians have turned back, but the sea has closed between them and their fallback position. They're fleeing away from the Israelites (or from God's powerful blow), but the sea is rolling toward them from the other side. Meanwhile, the Israelites, always going in one direction, have reached high ground. This, too, calls for urgency, then for awe as you describe the Israelites beholding what God has done for them.

Fourth Reading, Isaiah 54:5-14

The Historical Situation: In the sixth century B.C.E., the people of Judah spent a couple of generations in exile in Babylon. They were allowed to return, finally, but the rebuilding of Jerusalem and their shattered lives there was disappointingly slow. This passage comes from a part of Isaiah written in this depressed period.

Isaiah was sure that the exile and the slowness of the recovery from it were punishment for the people's sins. Nor does he doubt God's mercy. Here, he adopts marital imagery to express God's loyalty to the people, but he bluntly reminds them of what an unfaithful wife they have been to their divine husband.

Proclaiming It: That is the dramatic story behind these images. So relate them dramatically.

Fifth Reading, Isaiah 55:1-11

Proclaiming It: This passage is from the same restoration period as today's fourth reading. It likewise aims to give the people confidence, but uses a different set of inspirational images:

Sixth Reading, Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4

The Historical Situation: Scholar Peter F. Ellis, in The Collegeville Bible Commentary -- Old Testament (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992) says that after the Exile mentioned above, many Jews stayed in the lands of their former captors, or moved elsewhere than back home. They became the Diaspora (dispersed) Jews. Out of touch with the ancient Temple-centered rituals, they relied more heavily on the sacred writings of their tradition, and developed new writings in time. Such is the book attributed to Baruch (pronounced bar OOK). The book seems to be set in the Exile, or in the shell of Jerusalem during the Exile, but it's really about how to be a faithful Diaspora Jew at a later time.

The question posed here is how to get over the things that are ailing you (grown old in a foreign land, contaminated by contact with the dead, and doomed to the nether world are the strong negative images). The answer to cultivate the ancient wisdom of your people, given to them by your God and their God.

Verse 3:32 ("He who knows all things ...") and verse 3:36 ("Such is our God ...") establish the authority of God, and the verses in between link wisdom with that authority. This is necessary because the Jews regularly personified wisdom as a spirit, female, sometimes desirable like a bride and sometimes maternal. Wisdom is not quite divine, but knows God intimately and shares herself generously with God's willing people. In today's passage, wisdom is out-and-out identified with the book of the enduring law of God.

Proclaiming It: Christ, of course, is to us God's wisdom personified. And that may be why this passage is scheduled for reading today. This is a complicated passage for a lector to proclaim, a task made no easier by its position as sixth entrée in the richest smörgåsbord of the liturgical year. But it's a timely passage. It's no easier for Christians to be faithful today than it was for Jews in the early Diaspora. The surrounding culture, at least where this author lives, is no less hostile to Christianity than ancient Babylon was to Judaism. There are Nebuchadnezzars in every government office and every media-company executive suite. And while Catholics can avail themselves of an embarrassment of rituals, it's as difficult as it is rare to find the excellent kernel of our tradition's wisdom there. So, lector, study the passage carefully, figure out what each verse contributes to the whole, and proclaim it with its importance in mind.

Seventh Reading, Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28

The Historical Situation: The book of Ezekiel is from the Exile, as described above in the commentary on the fourth and sixth readings. Some false prophets were telling the exiles that things were about to get better, but Ezekiel has a dimmer view. His task is to tell the people that, due to their sinfulness, they had a fuller measure of suffering still to endure. There is hope, but it all comes from God's side, as we shall see.

The Theological Background: The prophets were always pointing out how Israel's God differed from the gods of all other peoples. The name of that difference is holiness, which, at its root, means separated from what is ordinary. So in this case, the people's first offenses are to spill blood upon the ground and to worship idols. The response of the holy God is, "How vulgar! How offensively ordinary! Must you be so much like all the pagans? I'm not like their gods, and you demean me when you act just like the people who belong to those inferior gods. Shape up and rise to the dignity you have solely because I AM your God!"

Now God is going to restore the Exiles, but only because that will further emphasize God's holiness, God's differences from the gods of the pagans. God stresses that this is not because of any worthiness on the part of the exiles ("not for your sakes"). For God to respond with favor to something allegedly good done by the people would be for God to act like the frankly mercantile, transactional gods of the pagans. No, there's no way this God's favor can be bought. God does things only "for the sake of my holy name."

Proclaiming It: That's the theological logic behind this passage. So a lector should proclaim it with great contrast in the voice, emphasizing the differences between the holy God and the unworthy recipients of his love, and the differences between God's asserted motives and the people's false self-assurance.

Of course there are other reasons this passage is proclaimed tonight: the image of the cleansing water and the replacement of stony hearts with fleshy hearts. But the holy God's call of us to be holy, as different from the pagans as God is different from their gods, will always be the prophet's challenge to us.

Epistle Reading, Romans 6:3-11

The Theological Background: In the letter to the Romans, Paul has a complex agenda. Admittedly oversimplifying things, let us just say that the main issue is "How do we get right with God?" The old way involved trying to keep the law of Moses. The law was not up to what people, including Paul in his earlier life, had tried to get it to do for them. Incremental improvements in one's observance of the law availed nothing.

Now that's all out the window because God has suddenly and unexpectedly shown that it's only in Christ that we can get right with God. And you start your relationship with Christ by accepting baptism. Paul uses the starkest image he can think of to emphasize this: death, burial and resurrection. When you go down under the waters of baptism, you are being buried. You have died to sin and to observance of the law. They are over, over, over. Now come up out of that watery grave to new life.

Proclaiming It: The vigor of this image echoes the vigor implicit in the word "baptize" itself. For the word originally meant "to saturate." Saint Paul would not recognize today's vapid substitutes for saturating baptism, sprinkling and dribbling. Those seem to say nothing about the radical change that occurs in one converted to Christ. If the lector's congregation settles for the vapid in its ritual of initiation, at least the lector can proclaim vigorously Paul's take on the meaning of it all.


Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

In 2017, Commonweal magazine published Rita Ferrone's article on tonight's readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, "Between Past & Future." It concludes, "These readings address us from the past. But they tell us more than what God did at some point long ago and far away. They illuminate what God is still doing—and will do—in order to save the human race. Like the liturgy itself, these readings speak of origins and destiny together. Unless we understand this, we will miss the best of what they have to tell us." Click here to read the whole article. (Link still active March 7, 2024.)

Credit for the picture at the top:

Detail from an early Christian sarcophagus depicting the crossing of the Red Sea. The work dates from the end of the 4th century and is conserved in the Museum of Arles and Ancient Provence, Arles, France. This French-language wikipedia page describes it in detail and compares it to a contemporary sarcophagus treating the same subject in Arles' Cathedral of Saint Trophime.

Click here to see the whole work a generously sized high-resolution graphic.

This page updated March 7, 2024