Exodus at the Paschal Vigil: A Terrifying Dare to Believe

The history of the Church’s liturgy reveals that a significant aspect of “keeping vigil” through the nighttime hours is a prolonged Liturgy of the Word. Some ancient traditions proclaimed a number of scriptural and even non-scriptural readings to an assembly as it kept a “night watch” before the observance of a major liturgical celebration. While in contemporary circumstances the number of “vigil liturgies” has declined to the Paschal Vigil (and a suggested Pentecost Vigil), the character of a vigil liturgy as a vigil of readings remains.

And readings in the plural it is. The Paschal Vigil prescribes seven readings from the Old Testament, one from the epistles (Romans 6), and a gospel of a resurrection account – a total of nine readings in all. The proclamation of all these readings is a daunting task, especially among assemblies used to the standard three readings of a Sunday liturgy, or who have come to the Saturday evening Mass expecting a “Saturday-night quickie,” to sleep in on Easter Sunday morning. The realization that seven(!) Old Testament readings will precede the gospel is enough to throw any pious church-going Catholic into consternation!

Yet the choice and arrangement of these readings is both quite ancient and highly significant. Proclaimed together they announce not only the overwhelming panorama of salvation history, but also they exercise a profound annunciation that salvation continues to be accomplished in our own day. The full proclamation of the entire vigil of readings occupies the largest component of the Paschal Vigil.

Yet, the liturgical guidelines for the Paschal Vigil provide that for “pastoral reasons” the number of readings may be reduced. And sadly, some parish communities may “invent” a pastoral reason to do so. However, recognizing that exceptions do become the norm, the liturgy insists that of all the vigil readings, the one from Exodus (14: 15—15: 1) MUST be proclaimed.

A good question is why? Why of all the readings offered, from Genesis to the prophets, would Exodus be chosen indispensable for proclamation? Well, the theological answer is that Exodus serves as the great “typology” of the resurrection of Christ. In the Exodus account, God secures the liberation of the Israelites through their miraculous passage through the Red Sea. Liberated from the clutches of the Egyptians, they begin the journey, which will establish them as a nation, as the Chosen People of God.

Here Pascha is understood as transforming “passage,” from slavery to freedom. In Christ this “passage” is writ large, from death to new life, and made a universal experience for all believers. The reading serves as connection and integration between promise and fulfillment.

However, if one dares to look a bit more closely at the Exodus account, it reveals an unsettling (though not unfamiliar) depiction of God some might think inconsistent with the Easter celebration. It is the way in which God leads the Israelites through the sea. Without a closer study of the text, Conventional Wisdom probably understands the scenario in this way: the evil Egyptians pursue the Israelites into the sea and God, after leading the Israelites out, has the sea cover the Egyptians in punishment for their wickedness.

The text, though, includes some specific details. For while the Egyptians do pursue the Israelites, the text also states that they begin to realize that God is fighting for Israel against them. The Egyptians have “wised up,” so to speak (especially after not getting the picture through a variety of plagues!), and they sound the retreat (14: 24-25). Strangely, the text goes further to state that as they are retreating, it is God who clogs their chariot wheels with mud, so that they cannot escape. They are, in fact, trapped……by God. It is then that God, in quite a vengeful act, casually calls the waters back upon this mud-ensnared group, drowning the Egyptian army. And we are left with the chilling and yet matter-of-fact statement, “Not a single one of them escaped” (14: 28). To add insult to injury the Exodus passage concludes with the liberated Israelites singing and dancing over the destruction of the Egyptians whose bodies are washing up on the shore (15: 1).

In most proclamations the complexity of this scenario might just pass over our heads. Yet the image of freedom at a price is meant to remain with us. We are asked to consider what sort of God, as Annie Dillard once challenged us, we “so blithely invoke?” How do we justify our “alleluias” after remembering such an event, where the liberation of one people comes at the destruction of another who already realized they had lost? And at the hands of a God, whom we profess is all good and all loving; who causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust? Is God truly good and loving, but only to a point…?

These questions are part of the great paradox of the resurrection. For when faced with the very frustration by crucifixion of God’s plan in Jesus of Nazareth, God responds not with equal (and perhaps in many eyes justified) destruction. No, rather, God breathes the new life of resurrection on all, even on those who screamed for Christ’s death.

We must listen to the Exodus account at the Paschal Vigil in order to truly ponder the wonder of the resurrection; and of the kind of God, more than we can ever consider or imagine, who calls us into relationship. We must be struck with the awesome life-changing, destiny-changing, nature of this act of God.

Try as we might, we can never domesticate this type of God. Nor can we view God as one who fulfills only purposes that we in our feeble minds conceive are right and proper for God to fulfill. The liturgy of Pascha once again invites us to dare say “Yes!” to this unpredictable God; to accompanying God into those places, Dillard again challenges, “from which we can never return.” It takes the courage of faith to dare say “Alleluia” to that!

7 comments

  1. I only wish that Joshua 3 were also required to be read either at the Easter Vigil or at the Pentecost Vigil, to provide the essential bookend to the Exodus reading. (As things stand, only a sample of this chapter is prescribed in the weekday Lectionary – for the Thursday of the 19th week of Ordinary Time in Year 1.)

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/joshua/3

    That said, a homilist would be quite justified in referring to Joshua 3 in preaching about the Exodus passage.

  2. I have a hard time with the fact that this is such an important part of the Vigil. No serious scholar believes that the exodus actually took place as described in this reading. Does it make sense to use a story that isn’t close to true to understand our God?

    1. All stories are true; some of them actually happened.

      The Exodus happened when enslaved people in Haiti rose up and drove out their oppressors. The Exodus happens when a person with an addiction finds sobriety. The Exodus happens at each and every baptism.

      God frees us. The walk of the free is hard, but God sustains us. There is a Promised Land to enter.

      The Exodus is happening.

  3. Jim, thanks for standing up for full feasts of sacred scripture at the Easter Vigil! Don’t truncate it a bit, I say.
    I disagree with the notion that the Exodus history is something that people today can’t believe in. Maybe the wicked, who prosper despite every sin they commit, can’t believe in a God who saves. Maybe the downtrodden who can’t see anyone who believes in God act as if there actually is Divine justice can’t believe in God the deliverer.
    But whose fault is that? The biblical authors? The poor bastard of a homilist? The merciless parishioners? The icebound sophisticates?
    We have a choice of whether we want to be freed Hebrew (an Egyptian term for displaced people) slaves, or Egyptian soldiers, masters of the earth, maybe even Pharaoh himself – or herself – if we believe that power is what counts.

  4. I feel that we should not ‘slim down’ what should be a feast from the holy Bible. We need to build a keen awareness of Christ’s presence in the word of God, and stir up affection for the power of the Word to transform lives. How can we do that if we reduce the number of readings during our most important feasts?

  5. The research by people like Herman Schmidt indicates that there were originally four OT readings at Roman Easter Vigil with four themes: creation, the choice of a people, exodus/deliverance, and promise of renewal. As the number of readings grew, the choices reinforced those themes. The question this becomes not how many readings are there but how adequately are the themes represented.

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