Easter Vigil — 2017

The Easter Vigil is the central liturgy of the Church’s year. It is a Mass, with the regular elements of liturgy of the Word, which is what I concentrate in in my posts for Sundays and major feast days, and liturgy of the Eucharist — with presentation of the people’s gifts of bread and wine, and themselves; consecration of the bread and wine, making them the Body and Blood of Jesus; and Holy Communion. But at the Easter Vigil, some secondary parts are expanded into major rites, and the readings are more extensive.
Mass usually begins with a procession and introductory rite leading into the liturgy of the Word. At the Easter Vigil this rite is vastly expanded. First, a fire is lit; a large candle, adorned with various symbols of Christ, is lit from the fire; and the candle is carried in procession to a tall stand in the sanctuary. Meanwhile, the people’s candles are lit with candles lit from the Easter candle. The Easter candle represents the risen Christ, and its flame the light he gives to the world. When the clergy and ministers have arrived in the sanctuary, an ancient chant, called “Exsultet” (“Rejoice”) from its opening word in Latin, proclaims the praise of the candle as representing Jesus’ work of our salvation.
Normally, the liturgy of the Word consists of three readings, with a responsorial psalm after the first and an acclamation before the gospel. At the Vigil, there are seven Old Testament readings before the (non-gospel) New Testament reading, acclamation, and gospel. Not all seven O.T. readings are required to be read, but Exodus 14:15-15:1, which tells of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, is required. Not only does, it remind us of Passover, with the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb (a type of Christ), which immediately preceded the Exodus, but it also foreshadows baptism, which liberates us from slavery to sin by our passage through the water.

The first reading is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2-2. God creates the universe and it is very good. In Jesus, God recreates humanity, making it very, very good, and ultimately he will recreate the universe — a new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation.

Second is Genesis 22:1-18, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. At the end, God stops Abraham from killing his son, but God did not spare his own son in order to reconcile humanity to himself.Third is the reading from Exodus.

Next is Isaiah 54:5-13, in which God presents himself as the redeemer of Israel, promising reconciliation, “enduring love,” glory, and peace. We see Jesus as the one who brings these about, beginning in time, and fulfilled in eternity.

The fifth reading is also from Isaiah — 55:1-11. There is a promise of abundance. Gentiles will come to the Lord. God is forgiving, and his word — Jesus, in our understanding — sent to the earth, will accomplish his mission.

The sixth reading is Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4. God, the creator of the stars that rejoice before him, calls Israel back to his wisdom, his peace, which we understand are in Jesus.

Seventh is Ezekiel 35:16-17a, 16-28. Our sinfulness has caused our exile among the nations. For the sake of his own glory God will bring us back to the promised land. He will cleanse us of our sins by sprinkling clean water (baptism) on us and putting his spirit in us, enabling us to live according to his will.

In an ordinary Mass, the first reading is followed by a psalm, and then the second reading. In the Vigil, each of these readings has its psalm, but then there is a prayer recited by the priest before the next reading. It alludes to the preceding reading, asking God to deal kindly with us as indicated by the reading.

 

When the Old Testament readings, with their psalms and prayers are completed, the hymn “Glory to God in the Highest” is sung. This usually concludes the entrance rite, before the liturgy of the Word, so we might expect it to be placed before the first reading, rather than in the middle of the liturgy of the word. I suspect the reason for its current placement is that when Pope Pius XII revised the Vigil into its current form, Sunday Mass had only two readings, epistle and gospel. The Gloria came immediately before the first of the two readings, so the idea was that epistle and gospel were a separate unit and the Gloria should precede them. The Old Testament readings were probably seen as separate, not part of a continuum with the final two readings. At any rate the Gloria is sung, and then the prayer which would normally follow it to conclude the opening rite is said.
The epistle — Romans 6:3-11 — tells us that our baptism is a baptism into the death of Jesus, bringing us newness of life in union with his resurrection. Our baptism is thus also a death to sin.

 

The gospel this year, Year A, is Matthew’s account of the resurrection — Matthew 28:1-10. As the women approach Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning, there is an earthquake and an angel rolls the stone from to stone covering the entrance to the tomb. The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen. They are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus. On their way, the women see Jesus, who gives them the same message for the disciples.

It was only this time hearing that gospel that I realized that Matthew implies that Jesus had already risen before the angel rolled back the stone. Possibly the earthquake was the moment he rose and left the tomb, or possible it had happened earlier, but in any case, Jesus (unlike Lazarus) doesn’t have to wait for the stone to be removed before he can leave the tomb. Just as he can enter the upper room through locked doors, in his glorified body, he leaves the tomb while it is still sealed.

Another point that occurs to me is that the reason for the angel’s message is that it prepares the women for encountering Jesus himself. Without that preparation, they would have been overwhelmed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, but ow they could accept it.

 

It may be expected that the liturgy would focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The heavy additional emphasis on baptism in this liturgy is because in ancient times, the Easter Vigil was the occasion on which people were baptized. This leads to the next difference from normal Sunday Masses. In place of the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which normally follows the gospel, there is a blessing of water for baptisms (or for sprinkling the people if there are no baptisms). Adults are then baptized, and then the people renew their baptismal renunciation of sin and profession of faith, following which they are sprinkled with the water, in commemoration and renewal of their own baptism.

After this, the Mass continues as usual.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent A 3 & 4, Mar. 19 & 26, 2017

In the early centuries of Christianity, Baptisms normally took place at Easter, and Lent was the time for the final preparation of the catechumens who were to be baptized that year. Gradually it came to serve as a season for the rest of the faithful to prepare spiritually for their celebration of Easter. Over time, as infant baptism became the most common way for people to enter the Church,the formal catechumenate as the process of preparation for baptism fell out of use. Following the Second Vatican Council, the catechumenate was restored as the means of preparing adults and older children for baptism, and the Mass readings for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent in Year A in the revised liturgy were chosen for their connection to baptism.

 
On the 3rd Sunday water is a unifying theme in the first reading and the gospel. In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, these readings were assigned to the Friday of the third week of Lent.

The first reading — Exodus 17:3-7 — tells of Moses providing water from a rock in the desert for the thirsty Israelites. This physical water is understood as a type of the water which Jesus promises the Samaritan woman in the gospel — John 4:5-42. The water in the desert sustained physical life. The water Jesus provides sustains eternal life. Water is, in scripture and in at least some Jewish tradition, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus is promising the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. He told Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God required being born of water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5), and at his own baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. The offer of the life-giving water to the Samaritan women, and subsequently to her fellow villagers, tells the catechumens and us that this grace of baptism is available to all, not just to the Jews.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 95 — includes a reference to the incident of the water in the desert.

In the second reading — Romans 5:1-2, 7-8 — we find a reference to the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and love. Paul reminds us that faith in Jesus has brought us justification and hope of glory because of God’s love for us, made effective in Jesus’ saving death. There is also an allusion to the other readings: Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

 
The 4th Sunday has images of light and vision. On the first reading — 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a — tells of Samuel’s anointing of David as king to replace Saul. Although Jesse’s son Eliab looks like a king to Samuel, God sees the heart, not just outward appearances and chooses David. The anointing of David brings the Holy Spirit powerfully upon him. We too, receive the Spirit at our baptism.

The responsorial psalm — Psalm 23 — attributed to David gives us the image of God as the good shepherd, with its allusion to David’s having been a shepherd.

The second reading — Ephesians 5:8-14 — exhorts us to live in the light. Formerly we were in darkness, but Christ has enlightened us. The final lines, “Awake, O sleeper … and Christ will give you light,” are thought to be from an extremely early baptismal hymn. The light of Christ comes to the catechumens and us through baptism.

The gospel — John 9:1-41 – formerly read on Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, the day of an important examination of catechumens in early times, tells of Jesus’ cure of a man born blind. He comes into physical light, just as baptism brings spiritual light. We can think of Jesus’ making of clay with the earth and his saliva and putting it on the eyes of the blind man as a sort of “anointing.” The pool of Siloam, where the man washed, in a prefiguring of baptism, was the source of water for libations in the temple on the first seven days of the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles, or Booths). The healing of the blind man was apparently on the eighth day of the feast, when the water was no longer brought from Siloam to the temple. Perhaps this timing has significance for understanding Jesus as “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6). Certainly, the fact that Jesus earlier on that day had promised “rivers of living water” that is the Spirit, flowing from within those who believe in him (John 7:38-39) establishes the baptismal meaning of the healing of the blind man, and recalls the promise to the Samaritan woman of living water.

The blind man has been given light, not just physically, but also spiritually, and he professes his faith in Jesus, whereas Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees have blinded themselves to the truth about him.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent A 2, Mar. 12, 2017

In the first reading and the gospel we can discern a pattern of call and action which applies to us all, as shown by the second reading.

 
The gospel — Matthew 17:1-9 — gives us Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. In years B and C we get Mark’s and Luke’s telling. Briefly, the change in Jesus’ appearance gives a preview of his glorification after his resurrection, which is alluded to in the final verse of the pericope. The presence of Moses and Elijah can be seen as illustrating that the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) bear witness to, point to Jesus. The voice from the cloud repeats the words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism— he is God’s beloved Son — validating Jesus’ teaching and calling us to obedience. The apostles’ reaction of fear is natural enough.

We have all, no doubt experienced moments in which we have thought, “I wish this could last forever.” For Peter and the others, for whom he is speaking, this is such a moment: it’s good to be here; three tents can make it last. But after the voice comes from the cloud, Jesus is alone. The moment has passed. They must rise and be on their way with him. As at many other points, he tells them not to be afraid. This was one of Pope St. John Paul II’s favorite lines. Whether it’s after the miraculous catch of fish, at his appearance in the upper room after his resurrection, the angelic annunciation appearance of the angel to Mary and Joseph, the hearers have a mission to which they must confidently go. Here, the apostles can’t be content to know Jesus’ glory. They must accompany him to Good Friday and after Easter fulfill the Great Commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel.

 
The first reading — Genesis 12: 1-4a — presents the call of Abram (whose name later becomes Abraham). He is content in his home, with his relatives nearby. But God calls him from the condition which he could have enjoyed for the rest of his life. He must leave it behind and go to an unforeseeable future in an unknown country. In doing so, he will become the ancestor of a great nation which God will bless and which will itself bring blessing to the whole world. Abram obeys and becomes the ancestor of the Jews and the father in faith of Christians.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 33 with a refrain from verse 22 — encourages us to rely on God’s promised care.

 
The second reading — 2 Timothy 1:8b-10 — opens with an expression of the call that comes to all of us: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” More generally, we have been saved and called to holiness through God’s eternal plan brought to completion by Jesus. We can read “the appearance of out savior Christ Jesus” in two ways. Jesus appeared in his Incarnation and through is life here on Earth. In his appearance at the transfiguration Jesus manifests the glory of our immortality as well as his own.

We are called to holiness of life: living as God calls us. We do not know just what that will entail. Young people choose to pursue a career of one sort or another. Often it doesn’t turn out as expected. Older people may be called simply to continue on the path they are already following. Occasionally, some find themselves called to take an entirely new direction in their lives. The future may seem clearer for some of us, but it’s never entirely certain. There are always surprises, great or small. What is important, though is that we seek to do what God calls us to at every stage and in every moment. This will involve hardship, great or small. None of us is promised a perfectly happy life. But we keep alive the knowledge of the glory which will be ours after our resurrection, and this faith sustains us, as it sustained Abram and the apostles.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 06, Feb. 12, 2017

If we look for the unifying thread between the first reading and the gospel, we might call it something like “observing the Law.”

 

The first reading — Sirach 15:15-20 — insists that, “If you choose you can keep the commandments.” We have free will. We can’t employ the excuse, “The Devil made me do it.”This year, the weekday Mass first readings are from Genesis. We heard on Monday through Thursday of the creation on the world and of man and woman. On Friday came the story of the fall, and on Saturday, the result, with Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent. God does not accept the excuses: all three are guilty and all three suffer the consequences. Similarly, Sirach tells us, we will experience the good or evil consequences of our good or evil choices. God knows what we do.

 

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 119 — praises those who follow the law of the Lord and prays the we will know and obey it fully.

 

In the gospel — Matthew 5:17-37 — Jesus affirms the Law as valid, and tells us that our observance of it must go beyond the literal minimum. We must refrain from anger as well as murder. Of course, there are instances when we react emotionally with anger at evil, but we must not stoke that anger and hold on to it. Instead, we are to forgive and be reconciled with one another. We must refrain from lust as well as adultery. Of course we are attracted by a beautiful person, but we must not let the involuntary attraction turn to lust — which St. John Paul II says occurs when we fail to regard the person as one who has the inviolable dignity of a human person and instead make her/him an object for our own pleasure. Note also that he specifies that adultery includes marrying a divorced person unless the former marriage was invalid. Finally, we must refrain from deceptive speech as well as perjury. We should be fundamentally honest, so that it will not be necessary to put us on oath to be sure we are telling the truth.

Judaism has always regarded the Law as God’s supreme gift to Israel, something not only to be studied and observed, bit something to be joyful about. The giving of the Law proves God’s love for his people. Jesus tells us that we should take it to heart, and when we do, our observance will go beyond a literalist minimum. Our attitude won’t be “How far can I go before I’ve broken a commandment?” but, “How is God asking me to live?”

 

St. Paul tells us in the second reading — 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 — that God’s wisdom is far above human wisdom. God’s wisdom is aimed at providing us with a glorified existence far beyond anything we could imagine. Those who love God, as witnessed by their keeping the commandments, will receive what God has prepared — in line with Sirach’s statement that keeping the commandments will save us and trust in God will bring life. Jesus also says that we must follow the Law as he explains it if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday Scriptures — OT C 27, Oct. 2, 2016

Some reflections on last Sunday’s readings at Mass.

The first reading — Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4 — has two parts. In the first the prophet notes the evil around him and complains that God does not intervene to stop it. This can certainly resonate with us today, as violence is still widespread. God’s response, in the second part is to assure us that there will a fulfillment of the vision of peace. We need faith. But what of all those who suffer before the fulfillment? There is no perfect answer. In the Book of Job we are reminded that our understanding is so limited that we shouldn’t complain over the small amount of reality that we can see. Instead, as we hear in today’s reading, we must rely on our faith which tells us God makes all things right, even though we don’t see how.

The responsorial psalm — Ps 95: 1-2, 6-9 — calls us to praise God, not to resist him

In the second reading — 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14 — Paul reminds Timothy that we can all expect hardship. But we,like Habakkuk, must not be discouraged. We should have faith and be witnesses to the Gospel. We have the grace necessary to follow his example.

The gospel — Luke 17:5-10 — begins with an encouragement to faith, in line with the first reading. It isn’t to be taken literally. Faith isn’t about useless shows of power. It’s about relying on God for ultimate salvation, as we’re told in the earlier readings. It’s about realizing that reality extends beyond the way we experience things in our present life into the transcendent eternity of a loving God who will eradicate evil beyond the limits time imposes on our vision. Meanwhile, as the remainder of the reading reminds us, faith is also what drives us to give our lives over to God in love. In this way, life is not a matter of simply obeying a list of rules. Doing that is not enough for us. Life becomes a matter of being motivated by love in all we do. We may not be perfect in this regard, so we need to grow in grace — grace we can receive by consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus, as promised in John 6:53-57.

Sunday Scriptures — OT C 18 & 19, Jul. 31 & Aug. 7, 2016

Super late once more, but here goes.

July 31 — 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

You can’t take it with you. The first reading — Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23 — gives us the well known opening verse,”Vanity of vanities … All things are vanity.” It continues with the case of one who works hard to amass wealth which will go to another when he dies. All his hard work and anxiety don’t bring a proportionate enjoyment.

In the gospel — Luke 12: 13-21 — Jesus offers the parable of the rich landowner who dies the very night after he has decided that his years of working at amassing wealth have paid off so well that now he can retire and enjoy “the good life.” This parable is framed by two teachings: avoid greed (which is so much a part of our culture that most of us don’t even realize how greedy we are); and what we should really strive for is to be “rich in what matters to God.”

The second reading — Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11 — gives a teaching from Paul about what matters to God. It is what is above, where Jesus is with the Father. Our true life is life in Jesus. We become rich by leaving sinful conduct behind us and living a life of virtue in a community of the redeemed in which all are equal.

 

August 7 — 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

In the gospel — Luke 12:32-48 — Jesus begins by harking back to last week’s theme of having treasure in heaven, which we attain by avoiding greed: instead, selling what we have and giving alms. Next the lesson is to be prepared for his return. We don’t know when that will be, but if we live according to God’s will, we are always prepared

In the first reading — Wisdom 18:6-9 — we hear of how the Israelites were prepared for God’s intervention to set them free with the Exodus. They had faith in God and offered the Passover sacrifice, just as we have faith in God and offer our Paschal Sacrifice, Jesus on the cross.

The second reading — Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 — gives us the example of Abraham’s life of faith, leaving his home, traveling to Canaan, being prepared to offer Isaac, his son, in sacrifice (just as the Father sacrificed his Son, Jesus, on Calvary).

 

We see that faith is much more than accepting the doctrines found in the Nicene Creed which we recite every Sunday at Mass. It means expecting the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Our prepared ness isn’t just to meet the Lord at the end of our lives or at the end of time. The Lord can come unexpectedly at any moment to furnish his guidance, as her did many times for Abraham. It may have to do with a vocation in life; it may have to do with accepting a job offer; it may have to do with marriage; it may have to do with moving to a new home or any other decision however large or seemingly small. Bu we won’t hear God’s call unless we’re listening. So we need to cultivate that attitude of confident expectation, that reliance on God’s presence “now and at the hour of our death,” as we pray in the Hail Mary.