Commentary on the Readings
EASTER VIGIL-HOLY SATURDAY
Do not look for the living among the dead
We Christians are convinced to be custodians of an excellent project of man and society and we are proud if the noble and elevated moral proposal that we preach is recognized. We are pleased to be referred to as the messengers of universal brotherhood, justice, and peace. We experience a certain modesty presenting ourselves as witnesses of the resurrection, as carriers of the light that illuminates the tomb.
Sometimes one gets the impression that, on the same night of the Passover, the preachers feel a little embarrassed to show on their faces the joy of Christ’s victory over death while doing the homily. Instead, speaking about the Risen One, they often fall back on current topics that captivate more the assembly’s attention. They touch on serious and important social issues that need to be illuminated by the light of the gospel. However, at the Easter Vigil, the community is convened to hear another announcement. It is gathered to celebrate and to sing to the Lord of life for the unheard prodigy he has made raising his servant Jesus.
Tertullian, a Christian rhetorician of the first centuries, characterized the faith and life of the communities of his time thus: “The Christian hope is the resurrection of the dead; all that we are, we are so to the extent we believe in the resurrection.”
What distinguishes the Christian from other people is not a heroic moral life. Noble gestures of love are also done by non-believers who, without realizing it, are moved by the Spirit of Christ. The world expects a moral life consistent with the gospel from the Christians. However, it first seeks the answer to the riddle of death and the testimony that Christ is risen and has transformed life on this earth in gestation and death in birth.
The urgency of a new life can be understood only by one who is no longer afraid of death because, with the eyes of faith, “he saw” the Risen One and cultivates in the heart the expectation that soon the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 P 1:19).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Every moment of our life is illuminated by the light of the Risen One.”
From the earliest years of the Church’s life, Christians declared holy “the day after the Sabbath” and assigned it a new name. What the Romans had called the “day the sun” became the “Lord’s day,” in Latin: Dominica dies.
Very soon they felt the need to dedicate a special day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, a founding event of their faith. Thus, the Passover considered “the Sundays of Sundays,” “the feast of feasts,” the queen of all festivals, of all Sundays, of all the days of the year, was born.
During the solemn vigil—at which nobody could be absent—baptisms were administered. The ritual required that the catechumens not receive a simple ablution but were totally immersed in water and then emerged from the baptismal font—like the maternal womb—new creatures, children of the light.
Among songs of joy, the community welcomed these her new children, generated to divine life from the water and the Spirit. This is the rite Paul refers to in the passage that is being proposed in the reading. To the Christians in Rome, he recalls the moment of their baptism and the catechesis they received.
He exhorts them with a rhetorical question: “Don’t you know that in baptism which unites us to Christ we are all baptized and plunged into his death?” (v. 3), an effective way to remind them a truth that they have already in mind. They were baptized into Christ and this has resulted in an intimate union with him, sharing his destiny of death, to come with him to life.
One day, Jesus, too, used the image of baptism: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what anguish I feel until it is over” (Lk 12:50). He was referring to his “immersion” in the waters of death, from which he would then resurface on Easter Day.
The Christian—Paul explains—is called to follow the same path of the Master. To be united to the Risen One’s fullness of life, he must first die to the “old man” in all his evil way. This happens in the ritual immersion in the baptismal font. Going down into this tank means to agree to die to sin, to “bury” his past and start a whole new life, a life in harmony with that of Christ (vv. 4-6).
In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul explains this passage from death to life with a dramatic contrast between the “works of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit”: “You know what comes from the flesh: fornication, impurity and shamelessness, idol worship and sorcery, hatred, jealousy and violence, anger, ambition, division, factions, and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I again say to you what I have already said: those who do these things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy and peace, patience, understanding of others, kindness and fidelity, gentleness and self-control" (Gal 5:19-23).
The night of Easter is for each Christian—child, adolescent, or young adult—the best time to remind themselves of the commitments made by one who wants to behave in a manner consistent with his own baptism.
The first part of the passage focused on the negative aspect and on death to sin. In the second part (vv. 8-11) Paul introduces the positive theme, the entrance into life: “If we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.” One passes through death, but the ultimate destiny is life.
The first generation Christians have deeply internalized this Pauline teaching on baptism. They tried to put it into practice in their lives and have gradually enriched the ritual also with other symbolic, very eloquent gestures.
They introduced the gesture of covering the neophytes with a white robe, a sign of a completely new and spotless life they commit themselves to live. The bishop gave them the vestment, after having embraced them as they come up from the baptismal font. In some communities, the bishop also put on their lips a few drops of milk and honey, the food promised by God to those who would enter the promised land, the land that—for the neophytes—is the kingdom of God.
The shape of these tanks was also acquiring symbolic meanings. The oldest—two famous ones are preserved in Nazareth—were square or rectangular to remind the candidate the tomb in which he entered with Christ to bury “the old man” and all his evil ways and then to rise with Christ to new life. Other tanks were circular to reproduce the vault of heaven. They indicate to the neophytes the celestial kingdom in which they entered.
Those cruciform ones recalled to the baptized persons the gift of life; they were invited to join the Master and to offer themselves to the brothers and sisters. Those oval tanks finally had an even more obvious symbolism: as life comes out of the egg, so from the baptismal font, the new person is born.
Do not look for the living among the dead.
On Christmas Eve, the feast of the Holy Family, and Good Friday, it is challenging but not particularly difficult to prepare a homily. These feasts, in fact, are based on historical events, on facts that everyone was able to verify and that they had Jesus, a Galilean, born at the time of Herod and executed during the reign of Tiberius, as a protagonist.
On Easter night it is different: an event that has been empirically observed is not celebrated and the preacher has a much more daunting task: to direct the gaze of believers towards the beyond, to the invisible and intangible reality. He must be able to make them contemplate a light that is not of this world but belongs to the reality of God.
This causes dizziness; it scares to the point that one is caught by anxiety, by fear of announcing the shocking message.
It is the same fear that women have experienced when, on the first day after the Sabbath, entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right, dressed in a white robe (v. 5). Mark insists on such fear and ends his Gospel with a somewhat enigmatic annotation: the women “went out and fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them. And they were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone” (v. 8).
From the historical point of view, their silence is unlikely, but, from the theological point of view, it has a deep meaning. Who has “met” the Risen One, even those who received the heavenly message of the victory of the Lord of life from an angel, is frightened, faced with the task of proclaiming the incredible event. He knows of running the risk of exposing oneself to rejection or ridicule.
Paul experienced it many times. At the Areopagus of Athens, he delivered a compelling speech, complete with learned quotations. Paul succeeded to captivate the admiration of educated listeners. However, as soon as he mentioned the subject of the resurrection of the dead, it unleashed hilarity: some made fun of him while others said: “We must hear you on this topic some other time” (Acts 17:32).
Aware of the difficulty to make the paschal mystery understood and welcomed, Mark chose an original way to present it: unlike the other evangelists, he does not recount any appearance of the Risen. The last page of his Gospel (Mk 16:9-20), in fact, although belonging to the sacred text, was not made by him, but is a later addition.
Mark’s surprising choice is dictated by a pastoral reason. He writes for those who have not personally met Jesus of Nazareth. Many of them have not even met some of the disciples who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. They only heard their unique and unrepeatable experiential witness of the Risen One.
They belong to the second or third generation of Christians. Are they, therefore, deprived of every opportunity to “see, hear, touch” the Living One?
This is the question which Mark wants to answer.
He begins by presenting three women who, early in the morning, after buying the spices, go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. He calls them by name: they are Mary Magdalene, Mary of James, and Salome. They are the same ones who, on Calvary “watched from a distance” while Jesus was crucified (Mk 15:40-41).
The best known of the three is Mary Magdalene who—as Luke writes—had been freed of seven demons (Lk 8:2). She was erroneously considered a sinner by tradition. She was instead a woman with serious psychological problems. Jesus cured her and she became a disciple. She had been close to him in many moments of his life.
Mourning for their friend Jesus during the obligatory Sabbath rest, on the first day of the week, these women are in motion. They walk in the night: it is still dark outside but it is dark especially in their hearts. It is the darkness of desolation and despair. They are certain that their relationship with Jesus has been permanently discontinued.
The goal of their trip is the grave, the place where death unchallenged celebrates its triumph. In front of its invincible power one cannot help but bow down, cry or curse, as always men of all times have done. They blame the gods who jealously reserved immortality for themselves. Women can’t do anything but resign themselves to the common destiny which ruled that the life of every person—even of the righteous—ends in a tomb. In Jesus’ case then there is also the insult of a shameful death.
They go to anoint a corpse.
But embalming a corpse is a pathetic gesture. It is the last attempt of people to rebel against their fate, to go beyond the limits of the time imposed by nature. It is to give an appearance of continuity of life to one who most definitely does not exist. Embalming (...today we resort to hibernation) actually makes even more obvious—perpetuating over time—the devastating signs of death.
Human capabilities cannot do more; they have to surrender. A huge, unmovable boulder separates the world of the living from that of the dead. But suddenly there appears a ray of light.
The women “came to the tomb just after sunrise” (v. 2).
It is not a marginal record. For the Evangelist, this light is the sign of a new day, a prelude to the unexpected and shocking discovery of the empty tomb.
The night is over; the stone was rolled away. Although it was very great, the tomb is thrown open. What no one was able to do, the Lord did, annihilating the power of death.
As always, God intervened discreetly; no one has seen it. He is usually doing good without being noticed. The signs of its passage can be checked: the boulders of death removed, the joy that flowers love, reconciliation, and peace that spread. It’s not possible to contemplate “his face”, but—as has happened to Moses (Ex 33:18-20)—it can be seen “from the back”, when he has passed, contemplating a life that springs forth on the footprints of his steps.
Entering the tomb, women see a young man, seated on the right, dressed in a white robe (v. 5). Luke speaks of two men in dazzling garments (Lk 24:4) and Matthew of an angel of the Lord descending from heaven (Mt 28:2-3). The evangelists use these images to introduce the revelation of God, the message that the women—and with them, all of us—are invited to welcome: Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified One, is alive. His, like every existence, is spent for love and is not annihilated by death but is made eternal by God.
Jesus is identified as the “Crucified”. When he walked along the streets of Palestine he was “the Nazarene”, “the rabbi”, “the son of David.” Now he is and will forever remain “the Crucified.” Calvary is the clearest manifestation of his love, the culminating moment, the symbol of his life entirely given.
Where does he intend to meet the disciples? What is the place, the environment in which we, too, can meet today?
It is to answer this question that Mark has composed the whole passage.
The Risen One is not to be found at the place of death. “He is not here,” says the young man dressed in white. He then invites the women to see the empty tomb: “This is the place where they laid him” (v. 6).
The living can only be found where life takes place: in Galilee, in the region where his word resounded and where—through the disciples—it will continue to resonate.
Now we understand Mark’s catechetical: the “Galilee” which the heavenly messenger refers to is every place where the Gospel is announced, where a community of believers leads a completely new life, where goods are shared and reconciled people live around the table on which the Eucharistic bread is broken.
At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the candle—a symbol of the light of the risen Christ that illuminates every night (the night of sorrow, remorse, sin and its tragic consequences)—made its solemn entry into the church, where, the assembly of believers “wrapped in darkness” waited in silence.
From that taper, some with their candles, have timidly begun to tap the spark of light that they immediately offered to neighbors. In short, the whole temple was surrounded by light, the light of Easter.
Gesture full of meaning! The first person to meet the light of the Risen One immediately communicates to others the gift he received. He does not impose it by force but offers it respectfully, almost with fear and trembling. He is certain that, if there will be many hearts welcoming the divine flame, the whole world will be illuminated.
The young man dressed in white entrusted the task of announcing one’s own faith experience not only to women but to every true believer.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: