The Easter Vigil celebration of Jesus' Resurrection forces us to remember why Scripture exists in the first place. Years ago, at a Catholic Biblical Association of America meeting, Rev. Dennis McCarthy gave a classic definition of "canonicity."

Commenting on why some writings became "Bible" and others didn't, the late Jesuit Scripture scholar stated, "The books which comprise our Sacred Scriptures are those writings which helped the most people over the longest period of time to understand their faith."

Listening to liturgical readings week in and week out doesn't give us our faith. When our sacred authors wrote, they presumed they were writing for people who already had faith. As Father McCarthy said, their task was to help us reflect on the implications of an experience with which we had already been blessed, not to lead us to something we had yet to attain.

Of all celebrations in our liturgical year, this is the one which should most help us to reflect.

Free at last

Jesus' first followers had no difficulty using the Hebrew Scriptures for their reflection. Being Jews, they had already employed those writings for that purpose. But now, being Jews who also believed that the risen Jesus was among them, they began to see the importance of passages which, before His Resurrection, hadn't been that significant in their lives of faith.

That's why the third reading (Ex 14: 15-15:1) eventually became the keystone of their biblical reflection.

Just as Yahweh's freeing the Israelites from slavery and oppression has been the most important event in Jewish history, so Jesus' Resurrection filled the same role in Christian history. It freed His followers from the slavery and oppression of everyday life, forming them into the new people of God.

Their experience of new life also caused Jesus' disciples to zero in on Isaiah's oracle on what's really important in life (Is 55: 1-11). "Why spend your money for what is not bread?" Yahweh asks, "your wages for what fails to satisfy?"

God's message is clear. Don't waste your life on junk. Spend it doing what provides real life.

Dying and rising

Later, when some Christian writings also began to be regarded as Bible, passages like Romans 6: 3-11 were added to this night of reflection.

Having been baptized by immersion, everyone in the community had gone through a symbolic act of dying/rising during a prior Easter Vigil. (For centuries, the Easter Vigil was the only time people were baptized.) By going under the water, they had been "buried" with Christ. By coming up out of the water, they were "raised" with Him.

Like Jesus, they had committed themselves to a constant process of dying and rising in their everyday lives. This happened every time they gave themselves for one another.

No wonder Matthew revolves his empty tomb narrative around the element of surprise (Mt 28: 1-10). His angel says, "I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified. He is not here. He has been raised, exactly as He promised."

We're always surprised when we work through the crucifixion that comes with self-giving and discover the life at its heart.

Following the insights of our sacred authors, this is not a night to be looking at a crucified body on a cross. That's not what the women found at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Neither is it what we find when we let ourselves be "crucified."

Of all nights, we should return to the early Christian tradition of filling our churches with "crux gemmatas:" jewel-encrusted crosses. If we're not reflecting tonight on our experiences of the crucified Jesus alive among us, we're listening to these Scriptures in vain.