Commentary on the Readings
Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday) – April 11, 2020
Do not look for the living among the dead
We Christians are convinced as custodians of an excellent project of humanity 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??, fellowship, 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 praise to the Lord of life for the unheard prodigy he has made in 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 from Christians a moral life consistent with the Gospel. 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 at 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 do not merely receive a simple ablution but were totally immersed in water and then emerged from the baptismal font, which was like the maternal womb, as new creatures, the children of the light.
Amidst songs of joy, the community welcomed these new children, generated to divine life from the water and the Spirit. This is the rite Paul refers to in the reading from the Letter to the Romans. 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 of a truth that they already have in mind. They were baptized into Christ and this has resulted in an intimate union with him, sharing his destiny of death, to rise 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, as 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 be reminded 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 also gradually enriched the ritual with other symbolic and 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 puts 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 of 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.
All the evangelists begin the narrative of the Easter events indicating a very precise time—early in the morning, the day after the Sabbath—and with the scene of the women—Mary Magdalene and some others who go to the tomb.
However, they differ immediately after in their reporting of the shocking experience that they have witnessed at the tomb.
While Mark, Luke, and John assert that, with immense astonishment, they found the huge stone already rolled away, Matthew says that they have seen a terrifying sight: “there was a violent earthquake, an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, and he came to the stone, rolled it and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his garment white as snow. They were all frightened and the guards trembled in fear like dead men” (vv. 2-4).
If this story were the reportage of a journalist, it would be a difficult task to harmonize it with the information that we are given by the other evangelists.
Let us immediately clarify: this Gospel passage is not a news description. It is misleading to consider it as such because Matthew is not narrating a documented historical fact. The event that is referred to us—the resounding victory of the Lord of life over death—really happened, but it belongs to the divine world, not to the earthly realm. Unlike the crucifixion, the resurrection is not verifiable by the senses and cannot be told as one of the many episodes in the life of Jesus.
The sublime experience of the Risen One, which women had before the disciples, was hard to communicate. But Matthew had at his disposition a theological language that his readers understood very well, the one used by the Bible. It was a language often consisting of images, full of allegories and metaphors.
It is with one of these images that Matthew begins his story of Easter: a terrifying earthquake. To illustrate the miracles performed by God on behalf of his people, the sacred authors often use impressive images: lightning, thunders, hail, thunderstorms, darkness of the clouds, above all, the earthquakes that were very frequent in Palestine.
When the Lord appeared to Moses at Sinai—the author of the book of Exodus narrates— “the whole mountain shook violently. Moses spoke, and God replied in thunder” (Ex 19:18-19). The psalmist thus introduces the outrage and the intervention of God against the wickedness of the world: “Then the earth reeled and rocked, the foundation of the mountains shook; they trembled at his fury” (Ps 18:8).
To illustrate the power of which God, on Easter Sunday, has destroyed the power of death, Matthew practically had an obligatory literary choice: the use of the biblical image of the earthquake. He had already used it in the story of Jesus’ death. Unique among the evangelists he had written: “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened” (Mt 27:51-52).
He was not referring to material facts. He wanted his readers to understand the upheaval that was operated at the time when Jesus had offered the sacrifice of his life: the ancient world, the world of sin, lies, injustice, hypocrisy, was shaken to its foundations. It had suffered a devastating blow from which it would never recover.
The other images too—the angel of the Lord, the color white, lightning, fear—are taken from the Bible (cf. Dn 7:9; 10:6; Jdg 6:11; 13:22ff). The evangelist used them to build the theological framework with which to bear witness to the men and women of his time and to us the disciples’ experience of the Risen One.
Stripped of the literary casing in which it was wrapped by the evangelist, the Gospel clearly reveals the theological message. The wicked have fought the righteous and managed to prevail. They believed in having him silenced forever. A huge boulder is placed in front of the tomb and a picket of guards watches so that no one comes close (Mt 27:62-66). All celebrate the victory of death over life, impiety over righteousness, hatred over love.
Faced with this tragedy, one wonders: will the darkness and the silence of the grave extinguish forever even the memory of the righteous, while those who killed him mockingly laugh? At dawn on Easter Sunday, God responded to this anguished question. In a flash of light, he detonated his life-giving power because he could not allow the Holy and Righteous One to remain in the power of death. He pronounced his final verdict on what had happened on Good Friday: the defeat in the eyes of the world was, according to his judgment, the winner.
The angel of the Lord was none other than the Lord Himself revealing all his power. The act of sitting on the stone recalls the gesture of the warrior who celebrates his victory by sitting proudly rampart on the city he conquered. Matthew uses this bellicose image to vividly depict the triumph of the Lord over death, the terrible enemy that has always terrified humanity. The heavenly messenger urges the women not to seek the Crucified, but the living and to move away from the place where he was buried (v. 6).
After the defeat of death, the persons who have concluded their earthly life are not to be found in a grave. They are not to be found and encountered there but in the Father’s house, where all the living gathers to sing the praises of the Lord. Those who have made this discovery must announce it to everyone. The angel of the Lord sends the women: “Go at once and tell the disciples that he is risen from the dead ... This is my message for you” (v. 7). It is not an easy mission because one who announces the Living One runs the risk of not being believed or even of being laughed at.
We have no difficulty to talk about the Crucified One and of his courage in giving his life for love. The Crucified One belongs to the verifiable reality of this world. It is a historical fact that no one doubts. We instead are reluctant to announce the Living One because he cannot be recognized by the senses: he is in a heavenly dimension and can be contemplated only by the believer’s gaze. Only those who have made the intimate experience of a personal encounter with the Risen One, have the courage to announce to all—as did the women—that the Lord was not revived, but is alive and present in our midst.
Next to the empty tomb two groups of people appear: the women and the guards (vv. 4-8). They represent two opposite ways of placing oneself before the revelation of God’s power. The reaction of the picket of soldiers is fear: “The guards trembled with fear and became like dead men” (v. 4). They had to guard the kingdom of death, but, faced with God’s power, they panicked, fled, terrified by the light of Easter (Mt 28:4). The angel did not reassure them: they represent all the forces that are against life, who are at the service of death. They are in disarray and need to continue in fear because they have no way out.
The women instead—a symbol of the community—are reassured: “Do not be afraid!” (v. 5). Those who love life need not fear the upsetting interventions of God. He comes to remove all the rocks that sin has placed to protect the domains of death.
The heavenly message, directed to the women, is actually directed to all people. It is an invitation to grow in the certainty of the victory of life: never will a righteous person be abandoned; each tomb, like that of Jesus, will be empty. The forces of death (injustice, oppression, slander, hatred, deceit, cunning ...) will not prevail even if, apparently, for a time, they will appear to have the upper hand.
Faced with the great scene of Easter, all the losses and all the tears of the righteous of all times make sense.
The women hastily abandoned the place of death and rushed to announce to the brothers that Christ is alive. They represent all those who believe in the victory of life and race to witness their faith to the brothers and sisters.
Faced with the same event, the guards do the opposite choice: as Judas did, they let themselves be corrupted by money. They are the symbol of those who, even today, for the sake of some material advantage, resign themselves to compromise. They prefer the lie to the truth. They take sides with the powers that be and cooperate with them in an attempt to perpetuate the reign of injustice.
The Gospel passage ends with the manifestation of the Risen Christ to the women (vv. 9-10). “Rejoice!”—he tells them. Joy always shines on the face of a person who has “seen” the Living One and he or she realizes that, after Easter, the issues of this world, even the most dramatic and absurd, have meaning.
It is true that after Easter people continue to die as before. However, now they know that they will not remain in death: and this is not to die. They know that life has a goal—that is not the night of the grave, but the heavenly light—and that humanity has a destiny: the endless celebration.
Here is the reason of Christian joy. Joy is not such if it is not shared. Even the Risen Christ—as the angel at the tomb—sends the women to proclaim to all the experience they had. That has changed the perspective of their lives. From the material point of view, nothing has changed for them. Their difficulties and the problems remain the same. They are the ones who are no longer the same: they have been transformed by the encounter with the Living One.
READ: The drama continues. Matthew likes drama: the earthquake, an angel in dazzling white, the faithful women performing their duty with fear and joy. The tomb is empty.
REFLECT: Do you like the way Matthew describes the empty tomb? Does anyone witness the actual resurrection? Belief in the risen Christ requires an act of faith to which witness is given by women and men as disciples. What lesson does this teach us?
PRAY: The Easter is Alleluia, “God be praised.” It is not said during Lent. At Easter we sing it with great enthusiasm: “Jesus is raised! God be praised!”
ACT: Easter is a springtime feast. The earth comes alive and the Lord is raised. Make it a happy time for yourself and for others.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.