The Easter Vigil mass is the greatest liturgy of the year and is both the culmination of and the point of departure for the entire year that precedes and follows it. As such the way in which the Church proclaims the Scriptures at the Vigil is of great importance, since at this pivotal moment new catechumens and candidates are presented with an integrated teaching of the faith, and those in attendance who are already initiated into the sacramental life of the Church are reminded of their belief and its biblical origins.
The Easter Vigil has always been rich in Scripture, including at one time no fewer than fourteen readings. In every form it had from its earliest days the Easter Vigil always fashioned its readings into a beautiful pedagogy that led the Christian faithful to hear, ponder, and respond to a sequence of Scriptures that illustrated the history of our salvation. The present Vigil expresses this movement of worship and catechesis over the course of a total of nine readings, which may be reduced to five “where grave pastoral circumstances demand it.”
The Vigil readings start with the first chapter of Genesis (Gen 1:1—2:2). The Easter Vigil thus “begins at the beginning” and establishes the creation of all existence as the cornerstone of God’s relationship with his people. This lesson in turn leads into the theme of covenant, which begins to be addressed in the story of the binding of Isaac, told in the second reading of the Vigil, also taken from the book of Genesis (Gen 22:1-18). The covenant made with Abraham is next confirmed and vindicated once more in the Vigil’s third reading, which recounts the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt (Exo 14:15-15:1).
No fewer than four readings from the prophetic books of the Old Testament grace the Vigil mass following the exodus account, and they carry the story of salvation forward across many centuries of the history of Israel. These prophetic readings remind us that God reveals himself not only in words but in deeds as well—actions anticipating God’s ultimate “deed” of raising Jesus from the dead.
Capping the Easter Vigil’s scriptural catechesis, the two last readings are taken from the New Testament (from Saint Paul and one of the gospels) and they set forth the primal moment of the Vigil in dramatic fashion: the church which has been shrouded in darkness for much of the liturgy is now bathed in light, a soaring triple alleluia is sung in anticipation of the Good News, and the message of the re-capitulation of all creation is announced in the gospel.
Having retraced the history of salvation, the Easter Vigil liturgy reveals to its participants a profound biblical instruction concerning creation, revelation, and redemption, themes which are not only a powerful part of Jewish scriptural piety but which form a basis for Christian theology and spirituality. Those sharing in the Vigil are invited to relive the seminal moments in the past when God shaped the lives of his people; the arc of Easter catechesis then leads them into the rites of baptism and the Eucharist that follow the Vigil readings and which are their natural fulfillment.
From start to finish every word and gesture of the Easter Vigil liturgy is stepped in meaning. The nine readings which together form its biblical core impart lessons which steer the hearers of the scriptures on the way of salvation, preparing them to encounter the risen Lord, to recognize him, and to embrace him with the fullness of Paschal joy. Alleluia—happy Easter!
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.