The first time I went to the Easter Vigil Mass, I’m pretty sure I fell asleep. I was a freshman in college, and my friends and I had sat on the steps outside Notre Dame’s Basilica for hours before rushing in to get seats. Then Mass began, and I saw in my booklet that the Mass would have a handful of readings, rather than the usual two before the Gospel.
This year, sitting in the Cathedral of St. Paul, the purpose of these readings suddenly dawned on me. Maybe everyone else already knows this–maybe I knew this at a certain level–but I suddenly realized that the Genesis 1 of the Easter Vigil wasn’t the Genesis 1 before it.Genesis 1:1-22
The first reading, in our set of seven, was the very beginning of the Bible. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” We heard the first story of Scripture, the beginning of creation. This story not only brings together religious communities in a shared myth of creation, but it also ties Christians to their Jewish forefathers and friends, in a shared text.
But it suddenly dawned on me that the purpose of reading Genesis 1 at the Easter Vigil is to show a definitive break–or, perhaps, development–in the text. For Christians, the Resurrections make all things new: man, creation, our understanding of God, and even Scripture. After the Resurrection, Christians have to revisit Scripture, because since Christ makes all things new in His Passion, He also re-creates Scripture. With the Resurrection, we’re no longer reading the same book. It has been re-created in a new life.
After the Resurrection, Christians don’t actually share the same texts with non-Christians. The Genesis of Christianity is not, and cannot be, the Genesis of Israel, or of Judaism, or of secular humanism. In the Resurrection, even Scripture enters into a new life. And so in the Easter Vigil, we bring not only ourselves into a new being, but also the Bible. And just as we must pass into a new life, so must Scripture. So we read texts throughout the Bible, as if for the first time.
Then we read the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God asks Abraham, “Take your soon Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Isaac carries the wood for the burnt offering to the place of the sacrifice. But before Abraham commits the act, the Lord sends a messenger from heaven to stop him. The angel says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy. Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
For the readers of the Hebrew Bible, this story reveals the faithfulness of Abraham and the mercy of God. But for Christians, this story does significantly more. It actually reveals the mercilessness of man and the faithfulness of God, because Christians know that man will not stay his hand in sacrificing God’s son, and God will not withhold His son from the sacrifice for our sake. The story of Abraham and Isaac offer a formula for God’s relationship to man, since Christians know we can pray, “I know now how devoted you are to man, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
Then we hear a story from Exodus, in which God demonstrates His power over the Egyptians. In the story, Moses leads the Israelites out of their captivity to the Egyptians, but the Egyptians change their minds about freeing their former slaves. So they pursue the Israelites. The Israelites reach a sea, and God parts the sea so that the Israelites can pass. But when the Egyptians walk into the sea, God closes the passageway and drowns them.
In explaining the events to Moses, God says, “I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I receive glory through Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” After the events, Exodus tells us, “When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and saw the great power that the Lord had shown against Egypt, the people feared the Lord. They believed in the Lord and in Moses his servant. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: I will sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”
But in the New Testament of the crucified and risen Christ, again man’s relationship to God changes. The Christian understands that the acts of God in Exodus are no longer the measure of God’s power. Rather, the measure of God’s greatness comes in His humility revealed in the Gospels. Even greater than the power over creation and the routing of peoples is God’s power to humble Himself, to become a child that must feed, like all other children, from the breast of a woman and, like all men, die. But God’s death, unlike most men’s, is humiliating and degrading. He dies naked on a Cross. And we learn to honor God more for the power of His humility in subjecting Himself to such a death, rather than for His ability to subject peoples to death. And in subjecting Himself to death, God also reveals His power over death. Death becomes as nothing before and through Him.
We also change our disposition towards God. The Exodus story ends with the Israelites “fearing” the Lord in His great power, but Christ tells us, again and again, “Be not afraid.”
The fourth reading comes from the fifty-fifth book of Isaiah. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water…” God invites us to come to Him, that we may have life. He makes an everlasting covenant. God invites us to turn from the ways of man and towards the ways of God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
God calls us to Him, but also reminds us that His ways are, in a sense, unapproachable, because He is so elevated. We cannot enter into his thoughts, because they are so high, and His thoughts likewise cannot enter into us.
But this all changes when God comes down from the heights to become man, when he lowers Himself–and thus His thoughts–so that we can share in them. Christ tells us in John 15: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”
Ezekiel 36 reflects upon the unfaithfulness of the house of Israel. The Lord says, “I poured out my fury upon them for the blood they poured out on the ground and for the idols with which they defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through other lands.” But God relents in his judgment against them, because the peoples of other nations questioned the God of the scattered people. God gathers them together again, but he clarifies, “Not for your sake do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you desecrated among the nations to which you came.” He then promises to gather together the house of Israel, and He promises, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.”
Again, Christ’s life completely changes these passages. God scatters the house of Israel because of the blood they pour out, and Christians know that the reunion of men with God and with each other will come about through blood pouring out, the blood of God. In the Old Testament, the pouring out of blood leads to God’s fury and the dispersion of peoples. But in the New Testament the pouring out of blood will be a sign of God’s love and the means towards unity. The New Testament completely upends the activity of the Old Testament.
And, again, man’s relationship to God changes. In Ezekiel, God acts for the sake of His name, but in Christianity, God’s name becomes our name, both in the act of adoption in the sacrament of Baptism, and also in taking the name “Christian.” For the early Christians, the adoption of a divine name is so all-encompassing that many martyrs refuse to tell their torturers the names given by their parents. When asked, “What is your name?” many respond simply, “Christian.” And, of course, when we hear in Ezekiel of God putting upon us a “new spirit,” we are already looking ahead to Pentecost.
“Previously God himself demanded complete justice; now he asks for love. God has transformed the justice of the Old Testament into the mercy of the New. Whereas in the old Testament justice ranks first amongst God’s attributes, in a way restricting love and mercy, in the New Testament it is so outshone by love that justice ranks as one quality of God’s love. Love is the revelation of God’s innermost being: ‘God is love’ (1 John iv. 8) we are told — never ‘God is justice’. Consequently justice can only be eternal and infinite in so far as it is one with the boundless love of God; if it ever seems to impose limits on love (as in the economy of the Old Law), then it can only be a temporal and finite revelation of God’s being. By demolishing the limits which the old conception of justice imposes on love Therese [of Lisieux] reaches the peak of her theological audacity. She refuses to acknowledge that there is the same tension in God between justice and love as there is between the Old and New Testament, or between fear and love. She refuses to relegate God’s justice to the Old Testament and, therefore, to the law of fear.”
-Hans Urs von Balthasar
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