Holy Saturday is about emptiness. ‘The cross is empty now, and still.’ Where is the Lord? The heavens and the earth cry out with longing for the sinless one who is not to be found. We, the people of the sacraments, are denied the sacraments, to create in us the same longing. We wait, as mourners beside a grave, unsettled, ill at ease, almost not knowing what to do with ourselves. The reader, like the other ministers of the Church, has only one things to do today: to pray through the emptiness of Holy Saturday. It must not be like any other day - there simply is no other day like it. All that might happen in Church is the Liturgy of the Hours - Morning Prayer or the Office of Readings. If these are celebrated, the readers should make a special effort to take part, so that they are part of the bemused and wondering prayer of this day. To the right is an extract from one of the strangest, and yet most moving readings of the year: it is taken from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, and is the second reading in the Office of Readings. It is given here to help us pray this day, and prepare for the glory of Christ’s rising from the darkness of this night.
The Easter Vigil
The Word This Night
Easter is the original feast, and this vigil is ‘the mother of all vigils’. It is thus the most solemn, special and sacred celebration of the whole liturgical year. Tonight we welcome the risen Christ by using symbols of fire, light, water, bread and wine, and we know that he is with us. More than ever he is present in his celebrated word, as in the light of his rising we review God’s eternal plan of salvation, prefigured in the history of ancient Israel, achieved in the rising of the eternal Word, and present in the Sacraments of the Church. Our preparation for this feast must be sincere and faithfully done - because this is the feast which most clearly celebrates who we are as the holy people of God, gathered in the light of Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Tonight the liturgy of the word is much longer than usual - the vigil is meant to last through the night, and to be a relaxed listening to the Word. Do not think that because there are more readings than usual you have to ‘get through them quickly’. Tonight, more than any other time, we must linger over the Word of God, allowing God to explain his plan to us. Ensure that you know which readings are being proclaimed, well in advance.
Notes for Readers
First Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:2.
In looking at God’s eternal plan, where else should we begin but ‘In the beginning...’ ? Before we get into the messiness of human life, we contemplate the perfection of Creation. This piece of scripture certainly had its origins, before being written down, as a story handed on by word of mouth. This is why it has a distinctive pattern, or rhythm: “God said...” begins each section, which ends with “Evening came and morning came, the [ ] day.” Use these sections to split up your reading, and almost imagine yourself as one of the elders of Israel, sitting round the fire, telling the story to the young, to ensure that it is passed on. The tone of voice you use to proclaim this reading should speak very clearly of the bountiful generosity of God, who made all this wonderful world to give to men and women. Perhaps it would be useful to picture in your mind the things that God makes, as you read, to ensure that you transmit the message of the wonders of God’s work. Because of its structure, and because of its importance, it is certainly worth reading the longer version.
Second Reading: Genesis 22:1-18.
From the beauties of the new creation we enter the chaos of human history - a dreadful time when pagan cults would happily sacrifice their children to gain blessing from their gods. This story of Abraham illustrates many things: our God, the God of Israel, rejects such sacrifice; the trust of Abraham is revealed in his complete obedience; and perhaps the most obvious meaning: our God is not prepared to ask anything he will not do himself - even as Abraham is asked to give up his only son, God the Father is prepared to give up his only Son, as the ultimate offering and expression of trust. The difference is that Abraham’s son is spared by the God of mercy, while the Son of God is condemned by sinful men. As you read, there is a great build up of tension, even of revulsion, that Abraham could even contemplate such a dreadful thing as killing Isaac; there is a powerful drama about the story, a great fear and anxiety. This is only released when the voice of the angel intervenes at the last minute - a real cliff-hanger! Then, very quickly, the reading passes from fear and horror to a great and wonderful promise and blessing. The relief should be apparent in the reader’s proclamation. Again because of the dramatic tension of this reading it is better to proclaim the long version, which emphasises the blessing which establishes the chosen people of God.
Third Reading: Exodus 14:15-15:1.
This reading must always be read.
The fact that this is the only reading that is not optional must tell us something about the importance of its content. It is absolutely central to this night’s liturgy. It very clearly tells a story, but a story that for centuries has been central to the faith of the people of Israel: that once God, who had chosen them, intervened in a most wonderful way, in order to free them from the enemy that oppressed them. The passage through the Red Sea was the decisive moment in the escape we refer to as the Exodus, and escape somehow prefigured in the Passover meal that the people shared before they left (see Maundy Thursday). The key for our understanding - what this has to do with us - is twofold: first it reveals the loving care of God for those who are his own (for we are the new Israel). Secondly, and more importantly, it is by passing through the waters that the people enter into their new, free life - and by passing through the waters of baptism we enter into a new, free life. For Israel the enemy was Egypt, for us it is death. The line to emphasise is: “That day the Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians,” which sums it all up. The tone of this reading (as indeed of the whole Vigil) is triumph, which is perhaps best emphasised by the way in which the Psalm follows immediately - the only time this happens in the whole year. Liase with your musicians, and make sure that you, the reader, lead into the Song of Triumph by proclaiming clearly and confidently.
Fourth Reading: Isaiah 54:5-14.
From the drama of the last two readings, this section of Isaiah takes us somewhere new. It answers a fundamental question: ‘Who is this God who calls and rescues us ? What is he like ? Why are we his people?’ The unique truth of the revelation to the people of Israel is this: that their God is a God who loves, with extreme tenderness. Unlike other gods, who were jealous, angry, frightening and distant, Isaiah reveals that the God we profess is as tender and loving as a mother, as caring as a devoted husband. The tone of this reading is compassion: one who has been angry, but now love washes over that anger: the past is forgotten, and a new future awaits. The prophet wants us to hear the voice of God as that of a loving husband comforting his wife - it would not be unsuitable for the reader to ‘get into’ this reading by imagining him or herself to be speaking these words to someone they love. Then those to whom it is addressed - the congregation sitting in front of you - will hear the voice of our loving Father. Especially after the boisterousness of the previous reading, your voice should be calm and gentle throughout the whole of this beautiful profession of love.
Fifth Reading: Isaiah 55:1-11.
This reading is very clearly addressed to those who will be baptised in a very short time at the Vigil, but not only to them; each Vigil is our opportunity to return, as it were, to the font, and allow the life and light of baptism to be renewed in us - which we show forth by the renewal of our baptismal promises. So this invitation to ‘Come to the waters’ is for all who have been baptised. It is almost as though the Lord, through Isaiah, is trying to convince us: “Listen, listen to me !”, “Pay attention, come to me !” Make a special effort to be convincing as you read. Be careful with the last paragraph: in the Lectionary it is printed as a single chunk of text - be sure not to read it as a single chunk, but divide it up so that the meaning can be clear.
Sixth Reading: Baruch 3:9-15.32- 4:4.
This is possibly the hardest reading of the vigil. The prophet is pleading with the people of Israel to remember the Lord: to remember the wisdom that comes from God, remember the life and light that come from following his commands. The whole tone of this reading is confident pleading - one who sees the world as it is (through God’s eyes) and recognises that things are going wrong: one who is deeply and utterly convinced of this truth: without God, there is chaos, with God there is order, life and light. The reader utters these words of the prophet, and they are true for our own time: you, as the proclaimer, must see the meaning of this reading, so that you can be the voice of the Lord and plead with people to ‘make their way to light’. [Note: ‘Sheol’ is the land of the dead, the place without God. The ‘she’ referred to throughout the reading is ‘wisdom’ or the ‘commandments of God’; this refers to the simple understanding of the closeness of God and the need to follow his ways.]
Seventh Reading: Ezekiel 36:16-28.
This reading is about the Covenant: God had established a Covenant (or a Testament) with the people of Israel, which said “If you follow my laws and commandments, then I shall be your God and you will be my people.” But this Covenant was constantly being broken by the people. So through the prophets God proclaimed that there would be a New Covenant (or a New Testament). That is what this reading is all about. So it leads us very neatly to the next reading which we will hear, from the New Testament. It concludes this review, in the light of the risen Christ (and literally in the light of the Paschal Candle), of the plan of God revealed in the history of Israel. This promise of a New Covenant leads us back to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ: in him, especially by his obedient sacrifice, God ‘displays the holiness of his great name’. In the water flowing from Jesus’s side on the cross, we see the waters of baptism, as Ezekiel says: “I shall pour clean water over you, and you will be cleansed.” Through these waters, we become the people of the New Covenant, with a ‘new spirit’ in us. The reader should be aware of who is speaking: God, summing up what man has done, and what God will do. The tone is first almost severe, but then melts into the glorious promise which we, by our baptisms, have claimed. The final line is awesome in its intensity: the reader speaks the words of the eternal Lord, who says to us gathered in our church this night: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” What an amazing statement !
New Testament Reading: Romans 6:3-11.
It may be with a sense of relief that we get to this reading: this is the one that links everything together, and explains why we are here and what we are celebrating. The mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection is the mystery of our baptism: in the waters we die with him and rise from them in his new life. That is why this night of resurrection is the night of baptism; that is why this most marvellous night is the night of great joy - because baptism is the ultimate answer to our greatest fear - the fear of death. Death itself is conquered by death, and we have life. This reading is very obvious in its meaning, and so is a gift for the reader. But be careful to remember the supreme importance of this proclamation - this is the message of Easter: this is quite literally a life and death matter! A simple tip to help read this: remember to smile, while reading it. Easter is about a deep joy, the deepest joy we humans can possibly possess. This reading sums up where that joy comes from. So be glad in this Easter message!