Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Spiritual Semites" at the Easter Vigil

I'm a bit reluctant to post this homily, because it is so closely based on the work of others who aren't well-credited in the text. However, here it is, with thanks to W. Patrick Cunningham, whose article “The Liturgical Pogrom,” appeared in the New Oxford Review, July-August 2000, and to the late Dom Adrian Nocent's scholarly work, The Liturgical Year, vol. 3. 

The first part of my text is taken virtually whole from the introduction of Mr. Cunningham's interesting essay, which can be found here.  I just ran out of time to insert the proper references and mark the many direct quotations. I don't really offer many original thoughts until I am addressing the catechumens!


I have never understood anti-Semitism. And I understand Christian anti-Semitism least of all, in the first place because Jesus, his Blessed Mother, and the twelve apostles were all Jews.

Beyond that, “Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and the vine has roots in the rich soil of the Judaic covenant and Israelite history.” As Pope Pius XI said, Christians are "spiritual Semites."

Tonight’s liturgy reminds us what it means to be spiritual Semites, children of Abraham.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all honour Abraham, the patriarch with whom God made a covenant.  He is held up as the model follower of God—the Roman liturgy calls him “our father in faith,” ready to obey God unconditionally, ready even to offer his own son in sacrifice (Gen. 22).

The Book of Deuteronomy told devout Israelites what to say when they presented an offering to the priest for sacrifice: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien...." Before the altar, they must identify themselves with Abraham and confess their dependence on the mercy of God. As they offer their sacrifices, the Bible commanded the Israelites to retell the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and how God delivered his people and led them to a land flowing with milk and honey.  (Deut. 26)

Nowhere in the story of Abraham is there a hint of "self-sufficiency." All that one has and is are gifts of God, and all that one offers to God is far less than what He is owed. This is the spirit of Abraham and the heritage he passes on to his spiritual heirs—the willingness to be taught and led by God

There is a direct line from Abraham to our mother Mary, who only gave one order in the Gospels: "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn. 2:5). And when God asked her to obey, she responded as readily as Abraham: "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38).

These are our ancestors as "spiritual Semites" and brothers and sisters of Jesus.


It’s not surprising, then, that tonight’s Vigil can scarcely be understood without referring to Old Testament history and images. Easter is, of course, the Christian Passover feast; and St. Jerome writes that our Passover, like the Jewish one, is marked by the expectation of the Messiah’s coming in power. The Jewish Passover celebrates liberation and freedom, “and the idea of ‘passage’ is essential to it.”

The same is true for us tonight: we are delivered not from Egypt, but from sin—not from Pharaoh but from Satan’s power

I was fascinated—but not surprised—to discover that some early Christians saw Easter and Passover as being so closely connected that they wanted to celebrate it on the same night the Jews sacrificed the Passover lamb rather than on a Sunday.

Tonight’s liturgy would be three hours instead of two if I spend much more time talking about how the Vigil reminds us of the blood of the Passover lamb, or the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites through the night, or the waters that parted to save them from their pursuers. What I want to get across is this: we are the new Israel, and we too are on a journey guided by God. Like the ancient Jews and Jews today, we celebrate freedom given by God, and we hope for the final fulfillment of promises made by God.

As we will soon hear in the blessing of the baptismal water, the children of Abraham passed dry-shod through the Red Sea so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized. In baptism we pass over from our old life to a new one in Christ.

The second reading about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac helps us connect the Old Covenant to the New.  While we admire Abraham for his heroic obedience, we can also find distinctly Christian meanings in this story. One author states that “the sacrifice of Isaac, an only son, reminds us of the sacrifice of the Father’s only Son, while the rescue of Isaac turns our thoughts to the resurrection of Christ.” 

And of course the resurrection of Christ is what tonight is all about. As the Exultet proclaimed, “This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death;” as we heard the angels say in tonight’s Gospel, “He is not here, but has risen.”

Earth’s long dark night of sin has, once and for all, been flooded with the light of the risen Lord, our Passover Lamb.


By now, our patient catechumens and candidates for full communion with the Church are wondering, “what about us?” I admit that I am taking my time, because the stage must be set before you can walk on and play your part. You are Abrahams for us tonight, obeying God’s call to offer sacrifice; you are Isaacs for us tonight, allowing yourselves to be offered to God within this Eucharist; by your courage in the face of a skeptical world, you lead us like Moses and remind us to walk on the dry ground of faith and not to get bogged down on our own journey. You are Miriams, leading us in a joyful song by your enthusiasm for the Faith.

And you play the parts of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who reported the news of the Resurrection to the apostles. Of course we who are baptized already believe this good news, but hearing the next generation of believers proclaim the good news strengthens and renews our faith.

You remind us that the Resurrection makes a difference—I might better say “all the difference.”  Why would any one of you be here tonight if you did not think that Christian faith would make your life better? What’s the point of your study and effort unless becoming a Catholic brings joy, peace and hope? And what is faith in Christ if he has not risen from the dead?

By making or renewing your baptismal promises in front of this assembly, you help us to remember our own journey from darkness to light and to claim our hope in the mercy of God that restores our fallen nature.

Tonight, dear friends, we pray with you and for you. We are confident that God who has begun this great work in you will bring it to completion.

No comments:

Post a Comment