On this most important night of our Christian year, the Easter vigil, some might be surprised that seven of the nine Scripture passages chosen to help us understand the significance of Jesus' Resurrection are from the Hebrew Scriptures. This is especially surprising to us Catholics, who do not have a good track record when it comes to using the Hebrew Scriptures in our liturgy. Before 1970, we never had an Old Testament reading in any Sunday Eucharist -- and hardly any one noticed.
Back then, I basically agreed with one of our seminary spiritual directors who, when asked why he never gave us points for meditation from the Hebrew Scriptures, replied: "We're Christians. We don't have to read the Old Testament. Our book's the New Testament. The only reason the Old Testament's included in our Bibles is because book publishers make more money by publishing thicker books."
Not long after, I discovered that for the first couple of centuries, the Church used only the Hebrew Scriptures during its liturgies. It took hundreds of years before the Christian Scriptures were put on a par with the Bible Jesus had used, the Scriptures on which He had built His reform of Judaism. It's because the Easter vigil celebration goes back to the earliest days of Christianity that we have so many passages from the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus' first followers realized there was no one way to completely understand the meaning of His death and Resurrection. That's why the four Gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb differ so widely. One need only look at one of Father Raymond Brown's famous charts in his book, "The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus," to see the broad variance (even contradictions) in the details of the four narratives. Our evangelists were more interested in conveying the meaning of what happened than in disclosing the facts of what happened.
That's why Luke's angel (Luke 24:1-12) never mentions anything about the disciples returning to Galilee; why his women, contradicting Mark's account, immediately tell "all these things to the Eleven and the others"; and why Peter makes a solo visit to the empty tomb. Only those who understand Luke's theology can understand his empty tomb narrative.
No biblical text better helped the early Christian community understand the meaning of Jesus' dying and rising than the Exodus story of the Israelites crossing the sea (Ex 14:15-15:1). Jesus' first followers completely identified with their faith-ancestors walking into certain death in order to reach life and freedom. They knew how such an experience felt. "The Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land," the Sacred Author narrates, "with the water like a wall to their right and to their left."
Trust in God
No one would take a chance of being completely annihilated unless he or she trusted completely in God's word, the word which Deutero-Isaiah reflects on in the fifth reading (Is 55:1-11).
"For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down," Yahweh proclaims, "and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the person who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." Those who want to achieve the life Yahweh promises, must trust the word Yahweh gives.
The key to entering into the vigil's celebration is found in Romans 6:3-11. Paul presumes that all who are trying to reflect on the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection not only have experienced a parallel dying and rising in their own lives, but have also demonstrated their experience in the rite of Baptism.
"Are you not aware," the Apostle asks, "that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Through baptism into His death, we were buried with Him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might live a new life."
There are so many dimensions to Jesus' dying and rising because we're reflecting on more than Jesus' death and Resurrection; we're reflecting also on our own.