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The OT Readings for the Easter Vigil

{ Tags: , , , , , , \ Apr11 }

During the Easter Vigil, we have a very long Liturgy of the Word punctuated by seven readings from the Old Testament which were designed to “whet” our spiritual appetite for baptism and the Easter proclamation. The OT selections are “snapshots” of the various stages of salvation history leading up to the proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we meditate on the events immediately leading to the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. During the Easter vigil, we immerse ourselves in the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection and of the new life we receive in baptism. The OT readings illustrate how the whole of salvation history, beginning from creation, to the election of Abraham and the covenant with Israel all prepare for our new life in Christ.

The texts of these selections are found here.

Genesis 1:1-2:2

Our survey of Salvation History begins with the Creation account. God gives the universe structure and content in the light, that is His Word. The six days of creative unfolding bares witness to God’s wisdom. On the sixth day, creation culminates with man whom God made in His image and likeness, “male and female He created man”. The phrase “image and likeness” is used once more in Genesis 5, to describe Seth, son of Adam (Genesis 5:3b), showing us that God’s creation of man is to be understood within the context of fatherhood. Man, of all creatures, was willed by God for Himself. And so, at the dawn of creation, we find the Fatherhood of the Creator standing out, and it becomes understandable that Luke would trace Christ’s genealogy through “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38).

On the seventh Day, God institutes the Sabbath — the rest He intends to share with man after the toil of his life is ended. God rests on the Sabbath so that man would learn that he is not made for toil alone.

The Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 104) celebrates God’s creation. Each creature has its place and time in the scheme of God’s providence. Everything depends on Him and He cares for all.

Genesis 22

The second snapshot of Salvation History offered us is from Genesis 22, the testing of Abraham. Salvation History is characterized not only by God’s acting in His creation, but also by the way men become His friends. He called Abram and promised Him land (Gen. 12). Later, He also promised Him a progeny despite his old age (Gen. 17). And so Isaac was born to him. In the dramatic episode of Genesis 22, we find Abram — now called “Abraham”, “the father of multitudes” — tested. And God tested him, not for his sake, but for ours, so that we may know from what stuff God’s friends are made up of.

A friend of God is one who trusts in God no matter what. Isaac was the only guarantee that Abraham would truly become “Father of multitudes”, but Abraham was not going to hold back anything from God, not even his beloved son. And so when he has reached the land of Moriah and seen the spot where he was to make his sacrifice, he brought Isaac there, tied him up and prepared to offer him up. It was at this point when he was stopped by an angel, and his sacrifice replaced with a ram. Abraham, God’s servant, loved so much that he was prepared to give everything to God. The responsorial psalm (Psalm 16) is the Church’s declaration that her only good is God and that like Abraham in the story puts God above everything.

Centuries after Abraham tried to offer his son in sacrifice, God the Father will give us His Only Begotten Son who will make the supreme sacrifice on the Cross.

Exodus 14

Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea has been used by the Church as the paradigm of the salvation wrought in baptism. We pass through the waters, freed from slavery towards the freedom of the sons of God. In the narrative account of this miraculous “passing over”, the Pharaoh, his heart hardened, decides to pursue the Israelites to bring them back under his control. The Lord, therefore, gives Moses his servant, detailed instructions as to how to position the people and what he is going to do for the escape. The pillar of cloud that accompanied the people created a buffer that separated the pursuing enemies from Israel while Moses did his work. At his signal, the waters of the sea divided and the dry land appeared on which the Israelites walked. After the people had crossed, the pursuing Egyptians followed suit but God looked at them from the column of fire and they were thrown into confusion. Moses gave another signal and the sea fell upon the pursuers flooding over them and covering them up in a blanket of death. Thus, the sea meant life for God’s people but death for His enemies.

The responsorial psalm (Exodus 15) comemorates this passing over of the Israelites. It celebrates the power of the Lord’s right hand (vv. 6-8) and His Spirit blowing over the waters that rushed upon the enemies (vv. 9-10).

Readings from the Period of the Exile

The next four readings are from the time of the exile. The period of the exile was the time when there was no people of Israel, no Temple and no God in Israel. The book of Lamentations describe that period as a time of mourning for Jerusalem, now reduced to the lot of a widow whose sons and daughters have been taken away from her by death or exile. Ezekiel saw God’s glory leaving Temple during the fall of Jerusalem; Jeremiah himself followed some of the exiles to Egypt after the last king of Judah was blinded and captured. And the Temple, glory of God’s people, was destroyed and its vessels brought to Babylon. And all these happened because Israel sinned against the Lord and His covenant.

Our situation is like that of the exile. We are far from our homeland, living in a country not our own.
Isaiah 54-55 are from Isaiah’s Book of Consolation. Here, the prophet convinces the dispersed Israelites to return to their homeland because the Lord wants to restore them. The selection from Baruch is part of an oracle that invites the Israelites to look at their great heritage, lost because of sin, but can still be recovered by repentance. Ezekiel 36, like Jeremiah 31, is about God’s action of restoring His people to the covenant. And He is doing it because His Name is Faithful and Mercy; and the holiness of that Name He will prove as He rescues His people.

Isaiah 54

Isaiah 54 is an oracle about the restoration of Israel. Zion will once more be espoused to Yahweh and will be reunited with her children. This will happen when Israel returns to the Lord. That “Day” is like the one after Noah (Is. 54:9-10) and his family re-emerge from the Ark to begin anew. A rainbow became the sign of the covenant that God will never again destroy humanity. After the flood, a new world lay waiting for those who emerged from the waters. In fact the hope of the world lay in the new humanity that will emerge from Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Thus, in the day of restoration, God will restore the battered walls of Jerusalem and Israel’s children will all be taught by God. Justice, peace and security will characterize the days of Israel.

The responsorial psalm (Ps. 30) is a thanksgiving for vindication at the hands of the Lord. Saved from death, the “I” praises God (vv. 1-4). The experience of salvation is described as something that occurs after the experience of God’s wrath. The morning of God’s intervention replaces the tears of the night with rejoicing (vv. 5-6). It is the Church’s response to the oracle of restoration which she now experiences in her life.

Isaiah 55

Isaiah 55 reiterates the call to repentance. A return to the Lord is a return to life. The Word of the Lord is the guarantee that everything stated in Isaiah’s Book of Consolation (Isaiah 40-55) will be realized. For the Word of God does everything according to His designs.

This convictiion about the Word of God is best exemplified in the description of the Word of God made flesh in the gospel of John. “From above” he goes to His own. To these, He offered Himself as the Waters that spring to eternal life, as Bread of Life, as the Good Shepherd that lays down His life for the sheep. Finally, from his broken side, water and blood flowed so that the world may have life.

The responsorial psalm is taken from Isaiah 12 which is a psalm of thanksgiving in response to the Day of the Lord oracle in Isaiah 11. The oracle in Isaiah 11 is about the Messiah who will emerge from Jesse’s stump and will usher in a time of peace for Jerusalem. The Gentiles and the dispersed children of Israel shall come to Zion, the center of the world. There both Israel and Judah, for a long time separated, will be reunited under one king. The key idea in this psalm is found in the last line where the dancers and singers declare: “All my wellsprings are in you” (Hebrew, see NIV). The waters that give life will be sought in Zion.

Baruch 3:9-4:2

The selection from Baruch 3:9-4:2 is a rebuke directed to exiled Israel. Remember that the Northern Kingdom fell in 721 BC under the force of the Assyrians and its people went into exile to be replaced by a motley group of settlers. This was followed by the fall of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, under the Babylonians. The rebuke is directed to both. They have gone into exile because they have rejected Wisdom. Wisdom will never be found outside of Israel, because it was God’s gift to Israel. Obviously, this conviction is based on Deuteronomy 4:5-8. By observing the Lord’s statutes and decrees Israel will show evidence of their wisdom. In fact, Baruch goes further, Wisdom, he says is the Torah. And it is for this reason that Israel is blessed, because they know what is pleasing to God.

The Scriptures point to the Word of God, which is God’s Wisdom. But the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among men in Jesus Christ. That is why in John 5 Jesus rebukes the Jews: “You search the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. but you do not want to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

The responsorial psalm is from the second part of Psalm 19, a psalm which celebrates God’s wisdom in creation and the law. It is the Church’s response to Baruch’s declaration that Wisdom is found among God’s children.

Ezekiel 36

The selection from Ezekiel 36 is one of the classics of baptism.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from your impurities …
I will give you a new heart
and place a new spirit within you

and make you live by my statutes…
You will be my people,
I will be your God.

Verses 25-27 (quoted above) can be taken as a response to the psalmist’s petition in Psalm 51. But from the context of Ezekiel’s oracle about the Name of the Lord, the verses declare the programme of Israel’s restoration under a new covenant.

There are two psalms that alternate for this reading. For celebrations with baptism, Psalm 42 is employed. Psalm 42 begins with the image of a thirsty deer wailing for running waters, the biblical symbol of God. The image of a deer is that of the homesick Israelite yearning for the days spent in once festal Jerusalem. In this psalm, he expresses his sadness over the fact of his being exiled from his true home. For those who wish to be baptized, the psalm expresses the yearning for life in God and in His household.

Psalm 51 is the other psalm and is to be used in cases where there is only the renewal of baptismal vows. Through this psalm the congregation asks God for forgiveness

Cleanse me with hyssop and I shall be clean…
A clean heart create for me, O God
Renew in me a steadfast spirit…

It is a psalm fitting for the sacrament of reconciliation. But it also expresses the sentiment of those who are aware that they have fallen short of their commitment to the new covenant struck in the blood of Christ.


Light, Covenant, Wisdom, Forgiveness of Sins, Waters of Salvation, God’s Word — all these themes are somehow related to baptism. “Light” recalls the Light of Christ that we receive. The “Covenant” is the new covenant into which we are incorporated — the covenant struck with the blood of Christ, which became the basis of our life with God. “Wisdom” is Christ himself who allows us to rightly walk according to the freedom of God’s children. The “Waters of Salvation”, are the wellsprings of salvation springing from within the Church and becomes for us the source of eternal life. “Forgiveness of Sins” is the gift given to us from the Cross of Christ. “God’s Word” is Christ who accomplished God’s designs for our salvation, re-echoed through the corridors of human history in the preaching of the apostles, and now written for us in the Scriptures so that we too may continue to listen to the Father’s call to return to Him and share His life.

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