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Easter Vigil: Service of the Word

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The focus of the service now turns from creation to Holy Baptism, and the people sit to hear the readings and to meditate on the meaning of the experience of Israel and of the church. The second part of the great vigil centers around water, an element which threatens death but is an essential ingredient of creation. Our forebears went safely through the water to new life, but their enemies drowned in it. So we pass through the waters of Baptism to drown sin and come out washed and made new children of God.

The Pascal Homily

This requires that the homilist carefully prepare and craft the homily so that it captures the tremendous mysteries being celebrated on this most holy of nights.
The Paschal homily or sermon (also known in Greek as Hieratikon or as the Catechetical Homily) of St John Chrysostom (died 407 AD) is read aloud on the morning of Pascha (a.k.a. “Easter” in English), called “the Great and Holy Pascha of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine rite. According to the Tradition of the Church, no one sits during the reading of the Paschal homily. Portions of it are often done with the interactive participation of the congregation:
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival. If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord. If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions”.
It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains! It took a body and came upon God! It took earth and encountered Ηeaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept. To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The Readings

The readings present a review of the whole history of salvation. The readings should be done in semidarkness, but sufficient illumination from candles or other sources must be provided at the reading desk and for the presiding minister.
Twelve readings are provided. Consideration should be given to using them all, but according to local circumstances it may be desirable to reduce the number to seven (the holy number) or to four (the number of readings in the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil). The first lesson, the story of creation, and the fourth lesson, the story of the Exodus, are always read, and Benedicite, Omnia Opera (“All you works of the Lord, bless the Lord,”) is always sung after the last lesson.
Several assisting ministers should share in the reading of the lessons. The lessons should be introduced simply, “A reading from ________________. The citation of chapter and verse is unnecessary. When the reading is concluded, the reader simply sits down. After each lesson (and the canticle, if one is appointed) silence is kept for meditation. As always, this needs to be unhurried, giving ample time to reflect devotionally upon each reading. The silence is concluded by the presiding minister praying the appointed prayer. The congregation may sit throughout the service of readings, but, especially when there are many lessons, it is helpful to stand for the prayers.
· The first lesson, (or 1:1-3:24), tells of creation, now renewed in Christ. At the first creation, the Spirit of God moved over the waters bringing order from chaos, and creation began with the coming of light into the darkness. In the cross and resurrection of Christ the new creation begins, and it is continued in each Baptism. This lesson is the first of the four in the Roman Catholic rite.
· The second lesson, , ; ; , tells of a foreshadowing of Baptism—the great flood. This Old Testament “type” or antecedent is used in .
· The third lesson, , Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Son of God and Suggests the death that Baptism effects.
· The fourth lesson, :1a (or is the story of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, a foreshadowing of the deliverance through the waters of Baptism. This lesson with the canticle which follows tells of the destruction of Israel’s enemies, just as Christ has triumphed over the powers of evil and now enables us to share his victory. This is the second lesson in the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil. The continuation of the reading, the Song of Moses and Miriam, from , is sung by the congregation or choir.
· The fifth lesson, -11, tells of salvation freely offered to all and gathers several biblical themes: water, Eucharist, the everlasting covenant, conversion, the word of creation.
· The sixth lesson, , is a message of hope to a conquered people: obedience brings life. The latter part of the reading centers on the Creator who commands the light and who shares his wisdom with his people. The baptismal way of death and resurrection is God’s gift of wisdom.
Baruch 3:9–37 RSV
Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn wisdom! Why is it, O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies, that you are growing old in a foreign country, that you are defiled with the dead, that you are counted among those in Hades? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom. If you had walked in the way of God, you would be dwelling in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace. Who has found her place? And who has entered her storehouses? Where are the princes of the nations, and those who rule over the beasts on earth; those who have sport with the birds of the air, and who hoard up silver and gold, in which men trust, and there is no end to their getting; those who scheme to get silver, and are anxious, whose labors are beyond measure? They have vanished and gone down to Hades, and others have arisen in their place. Young men have seen the light of day, and have dwelt upon the earth; but they have not learned the way to knowledge, nor understood her paths, nor laid hold of her. Their sons have strayed far from her way. She has not been heard of in Canaan, nor seen in Teman; the sons of Hagar, who seek for understanding on the earth, the merchants of Merran and Teman, the story-tellers and the seekers for understanding, have not learned the way to wisdom, nor given thought to her paths. O Israel, how great is the house of God! And how vast the territory that he possesses! It is great and has no bounds; it is high and immeasurable. The giants were born there, who were famous of old, great in stature, expert in war. God did not choose them, nor give them the way to knowledge; so they perished because they had no wisdom, they perished through their folly. Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her. But he who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding. He who prepared the earth for all time filled it with four-footed creatures; he who sends forth the light, and it goes, called it, and it obeyed him in fear; the stars shone in their watches, and were glad; he called them, and they said, “Here we are!” They shone with gladness for him who made them. This is our God; no other can be compared to him! He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to Jacob his servant and to Israel whom he loved. Afterward she appeared upon earth and lived among men.
· The seventh lesson, , tells of the valley of dry bones; their restoration to life foreshadows the resurrection.
· The eighth lesson, , tells of God’s presence in a renewed Israel, washing his people with cleansing water. In the church Christ’s presence is known by his baptized people. This lesson is third in the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil. The reading is followed by the Song of the Vineyard (, ) in which Israel is seen as God’s vine, chosen and cared for by him.
· The ninth lesson, (or 1-24), tells of the institution of the Passover, the festival of deliverance and preparation for the Christian Passover in which Christ the Lamb of God is sacrificed and is shared in the Eucharistic meal.
· The tenth lesson, , tells of the instantaneous and complete conversion of Ninevah after the preaching of Jonah. The lesson calls up the whole Jonah Story and points to baptismal repentance for all people.
· The eleventh lesson, , is the stern warning which Moses gave to God’s people, having set before them the law and the covenant of God. The reading is a preparation for the renewal of the baptismal vows and that covenant which demands of us faithfulness, obedience, and loyalty. This lesson is the last of the four in the Roman Catholic rite. The Song of Moses is sung following the reading, celebrating the power and faithfulness of the God of Israel.
· The twelfth lesson, (plus Additions to Daniel 46-50, 91-96, from the Apocrypha) tells the story of the three young men who were thrown into the blazing furnace and whose survival is thought by the church to foreshadow the resurrection. The optional verses are from that section of Daniel contained in the Apocrypha, from the Greek translation of the Old Testament that supplements the Hebrew text of Daniel.
After the last lesson, there is no silence or prayer. The canticle Benedicite, Omnia Opera, the song the three young men sang in the blazing furnace, according to the Greek text of Daniel, is sung by the choir, a cantor, or the congregation. The canticle serves as a processional hymn during which the assisting minister carries the paschal candle to the font. The other ministers follow.
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