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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 February 6, 2021.)
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 February 6, 2021