Preparation for the Easter Vigil

The early part of our Easter Vigil consists of a series of readings. It is long, perhaps too long. And in most churches now, it doesn’t go very well. But in the early centuries, the Christians gathered for a long all-night session of such readings. The choices of readings varied, but over time, three main themes came through:

the story of creation (of a new world),
the story of the sacrifice (and new life) of Isaac,
and the story of the crossing of the Red Sea (and a new land for Israel).

All three are about movement into something completely new. New world, new life, new land.

It is this newness that needs to capture our imagination, and deserves our pondering.

We do link it most of all with the crossing of the Sea by the Hebrew people, with their Passover.

In all the Ancient Near East, the sea was a major focus of reflection. Many religious stories are about a struggle between a god and the sea. For example, in Ugarit, the god Ba’al fought with the Sea God, Yam, and then with the God of death, Mot. After that Ba’al dies and then is restored to life. In similar ways Yahweh (Israel’s god) fought with Leviathan or Rahab, names for the Sea Monster. Marduk, the Babylonian god, fought with Tiamat, won, and cut up the body of this slain sea monster. Marduk then created the world out of the broken body of Tiamat. It is easy to see how a sea story like Jonah would have appealed to many different cultures in ancient times.

The early religious use of such stories focused on two things –

creation (of the first new day),
and the new year (which was a bit like a new creation).

In the Ancient Near East, New Year was celebrated around equinox, in either spring or autumn. In Israel, it was a spring feast (Rosh Ha Shannah). Christianity has its spring feast (at least in the northern hemisphere) but it is not called new year, it is called Easter – with strong themes of newness in it. Rosh Ha Shannah was prepared by a day of At-one-ment, or reconciliation, called Yom Kippur. The Christian Easter is prepared by a 40 day period called Lent. It all ends up in a burst of new life, at new year. There is always new creation.

The Rise of the Christ in the Early Churches

I would like to pursue this question in more detail, and say something about the function of faith in the resurrection of Jesus in forming a positive and creation-centred mindset in the early Christians.
Most theologians and New Testament scholars nowadays say what is obvious, namely, that the founding event of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus. They say that an encounter with the risen Jesus as a person is a life-changing and faith-imparting experience. The core of the faith and the core of Christian identity are there. Even if (dato non concesso) there were nothing historical about it, the myth of the risen Christ is central to Christian living. The resurrection is assumed to have been, from the beginning in the churches, a theme more powerful than say Christmas, or the death of Jesus. This is why, still, among Christians, they ‘get over’ Good Friday very quickly, and adjust their minds and hearts to the immediate feast of the Resurrection, in the Easter Vigil. This is not to downplay the enormous power of the cross in Christian life, but to emphasize the power of resurrection.

We have tended to assume and imagine that early Christians thought like that. Trying to document such a conviction in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is like exploring virgin territory. Once you get to the early 4th century, with the fusion of Constantine’s Roman sun god with Christ the Son of God, you have Sun-day and Easter-spring and they proclaim the resurrection. But before that?

Up till about 130/140, the (few) texts of Easter ceremonies that we possess surprisingly do not refer much to the story of the resurrection of Jesus, or the hope of our own resurrection, at all. It is absent where it would be expected. It is absent where there is discussion of death. Salvation is seen more as a removal from this world, than as a raising of this world’s body.

In the period of major interest, from the beginnings up to mid 2nd century, if you look at iconography, the result is much the same. The main images are the lamb, anchor, vase, dove, boat, olive branch, Orante, palm, bread, good shepherd, fish, vine and grapes, Jonah and the whale, the cross, Mary, Jesus as wonderworker. The list surprisingly does not include resurrection in any explicit way!

Even in what we know of the rituals of the Christian community at this time, and their feasts, for example, in baptism ceremonies, in the profession of the creed, in the celebration of the Sunday, in the memory of the Passover, in Christmas, there is a similar lack of direct prominence given to resurrection themes.

If you investigate doctrinal statements in this period and beyond it for a few centuries, the result is similar. A.Grillmeier is the standard source here. In his massive opus, he notes only 5 places in which there is mention of the resurrection theme: in the Gospel of Peter, in Eusebius, and three in the 5th century. We need more expert patristic study here.

So what was the real focus?

The Dominance of the Creation Story

We do need to ask, what was there in the early times – as dominant vision - if not the resurrection motif? I suggest that it may have been the telling of the Jesus story in terms of the creation story.

I do not now have to say that this is the very core of the gospel preferences, including, as I see it, the gospel of Mark. Once again, this may open a new door to the understanding of Mark. If he insists on radical kenosis (and he does), he puts all this in the larger framework of the positivity of creation. Perhaps you can only dare such kenosis if you already know the positivity. Perhaps you can only dare to participate in Good Friday if you know the experience of Easter.

The Theme of Light

I believe that one way in which the early believers expressed this was in the theme of light, and the ritual of a night of waiting for the light to arise. You can do that, through the night, if you already know the light will rise! I would like to say more about this.

My guess is that this theme partially pre-existed Christianity (and Jesus) in some Jewish mystical sources. My guess is that the early Christians fell back on it, somewhat naturally.

Passover is seen as in the first month of the year. It evokes the beginning of creation. It suggests the appearance of light. This looks to Ex 12, 42. It also prompts a connection with the Book of Memorials.

It is a night, a night of watching, in which the Word of the Lord creates, and in which the world reaches its intended status as creatively ‘redeemed’. This night is ‘kept’ for ‘liberation’ in ‘the name of the Lord’ in memory of the moment in which the sons of Israel ‘went free’ (from Egypt). The world had been confusion and chaos, and darkness had spread over the surface of the abyss. The Word of the Lord was light, and shone. And the world entered its due positivity.

When the world thus reaches its intended end, the yokes of iron will be broken, the generations of wickedness will be blotted out, and Moses will go up from the desert (we know not exactly where he was buried). There will be one leader at the head of the flock, and one at the back, and the Word speaks and leads the two of them, and the Word and they will proceed together. It is Passover. It is Creation. Creation doesn’t happen just at the beginning and end, it is going on all the time.

An Ancient Easter Homily
There is a very ancient Easter homily that puts it this way.

NOTE. This is taken from a Palestinian Jewish document (not designedly Christian) that could be dated between 20 bce and 50 ce perhaps in Alexandria or another Greek speaking Jewish environment. It is known as the Targum Onkelos. This document was discovered in fairly recent times. It first surfaced after the death of a former Rabbi from Morocco who converted to Christianity, and left it in his will to another Jew who had converted to Christianity from Judaism. It ended up in Rome in the Venerabile Collegium Neophytorum and is known to have been there at least since 1602. That Collegium closed in 1886. At that time the Vatican Library bought the Targum. But it was catalogued there under a wrong title. In 1949 the researcher A.Diez Macho noticed the mistake. From 1968 to 1979 it was translated and published. It has some affinities with Philo (an older contemporary of Jesus) – hence the guess of dating for it above.

The homily contained in this document reads:

“Already the sacred rays of the light of Christ are shining. The pure lights of the pure spirit are beaming. The heavenly treasures of glory and divinity are opening. The great dim night is swallowed up, and the impenetrable darkness is swallowed in him, and the sad shadow of death is overshadowed. Life is poured out upon all things, they all overflow with unlimited light, dawns of dawns occupy the universe, and he who was ‘before the morning star’ and the lights of heaven, immortal and immense, the great Christ shines upon everything, brighter than the sun. God creates marvels out of impossibilities, so that it may be known that God can do whatever God wants.

“O Passover of the mystical experience!
“O Passover of the spiritual feast!
“O divine Passover, who made your way from the heavens to earth and again went up from earth to the heavens.
:O festivity in which everything has a share, cosmic solemnity!
“O joy and honour and sustenance and delight of the universe! Through you dark death was destroyed, and life extended to all, and the gates of heaven opened. God appeared as man, man ascended as god. Through you the gates of hell were shattered and the iron bars broken. The people below, hearing the gospel, rose from the dead, and a choir from earth is assigned to the ranks above.
“O divine Passover, in no mean measure you brought God out of the heavens and now you have joined God to us spiritually. Through you the grat hall for the wedding has been filled, and all wear their bridal garments, and no one is cast out for not having one.
“O Passover, illumination of the new torchlight procession, splendor of the virginal feast of lights, because of you the lamps of the souls are extinguished no more, but in a divine way the spiritual fire of grace is transmitted to everyone, led by the body, spirit, and oil of the Anointed One.”

Resurrection means the light of Creation, always shining.

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