Commentary on the Readings
Easter Vigil – Year C
Do not look for the living among the dead
We Christians are convinced of being custodians of an excellent project, man and society. We are proud when they recognize that the moral proposition that we preach is noble and elevated.
We are pleased to be referred to as the messengers of universal brotherhood, justice and peace.
We have instead a certain reservation to present ourselves as witnesses of the resurrection, as bearers of the light that illuminates the tomb.
Sometimes one gets the impression that, in the same night of the Passover, during the homily, the preachers are a bit embarrassed to show the joy of Christ’s victory over death on their faces. Often, instead of talking about the Risen One, they delve on current topics that captivate more the attention of the assembly. They touch on serious, important social issues that need to be illuminated by the light of the gospel. However, on Easter Vigil, the community is convened to hear another announcement. It is gathered to celebrate and sing 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 thus the faith and life of the communities of his time: “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 Christians from other people is not their heroic morality. 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 coherent 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 into 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 his heart the expectation that soon “the day breaks, and the morning star shines” (2 P 1:19).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Every moment of our life is illuminated by the light of the Risen.”
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), hence the name Sunday.
Very soon they felt the need to dedicate a special day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, founding event of their faith. Thus the Passover was born considered the Sunday of Sundays, the feast of feasts, the queen of all feasts, of all Sundays, of all days of the year.
During the solemn vigil—at which everybody was present—baptisms was 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—as from the maternal womb—new creatures, children of light.
Among songs of joy, the community welcomed her new children, generated to divine life by the water and the Spirit.
It is this rite that Paul refers to in the passage that is being proposed to us in the reading.
To Christians of Rome, he recalls the moment of their baptism and the catechesis they received.
It begins 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 in Christ and this has resulted in an intimate union with him, sharing his destiny of death, to come with him to life.
Even Jesus one day 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—explains Paul—is called to follow the same path of the Master.
To be united to the Risen Christ’s fullness of life, he must first slay the “old man” in all his evil way. This happens in the ritual immersion in the baptismal font. Going down in this tank means to accept dying to sin and of “burying” one’s past and starting a completely 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”: The works of the flesh—he says—are known: “fornication, impurity, shamelessness, idol worship, sorcery, hatred, jealousy, violence, anger, ambition, division, factions, 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, peace, patience, understanding of others, kindness, fidelity, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:19-23).
The night of Easter is for all Christians—child, adolescent, youth and adult—the best time to remind oneself of the commitments assumed by one who wants to behave in a manner consistent with one’s own baptism.
After focusing, in the first part of the passage, on the negative aspect, on death to sin, Paul, in the second part (vv. 8-11) introduces the positive theme, the entrance into life: “If we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.”
One passes through death, but the ultimate destiny is life.
The Christians of the first generation 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 very eloquent symbolic gestures.
They introduced the gesture of dressing the neophytes with a white robe, a sign of a completely new and spotless life that these committed themselves to conduct. It was the bishop who gave it to them, after having embraced them as they ascended from the baptismal font. In some communities, the bishop also put on their lips a few drops of milk and honey, the nourishment promised by God to those who would enter the promised land. That land—for the neophytes—is the kingdom of God.
The shape of these tanks also acquired symbolic meanings. The oldest—two very famous ones are preserved in Nazareth—were square or rectangular in form to remind the candidates of the tomb in which they entered with Christ to bury “the old man” and all his evil way and then rising with Christ to new life. Other tanks were circular to reproduce the vault of heaven and to indicate to the neophytes the celestial kingdom in which they entered. Those cruciform recalled to the baptismal candidates the gift of life. They were invited to join the Master and to offer themselves to the brothers. Those oval finally had an even more obvious symbolism: as life comes from an egg, so the new person is born from the baptismal font.
On Good Friday some women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee were on Calvary and, from afar, they had witnessed the drama that was accomplished there (Lk 23:49). They went back to town and prepared spices and ointments. On Sabbath day, they rested, as the law prescribed (Lk 23:55-56) but on the first day of the week, at dawn, they went to the tomb.
It was customary that, after the burial, the women would return to visit the grave. It was believed that, for four days, the vital breath of the deceased continued to hover around the body and could return to reanimate the body. It happened at the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and Jesus too had done some resuscitations: he had brought back to life the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus.
But to revive is not to defeat death. All those who have been revived by some men of God then died again and forever. Death, relentlessly, always came back to recover for itself the prey that had been temporarily withdrawn.
To resurrect is not to come back to the previous life—as it happens in resuscitation—but to enter into a completely new form of life, a life over which death has no more power.
What did the women expect by going to the tomb on early Easter morning?
A resuscitation? To find some signs of life in the body that Joseph of Arimathea had sadly deposed in his own grave?
No! A resuscitation of the broken body of Jesus was absolutely unthinkable.
A resurrection then? It’s true! Jesus had spoken of it, but no one had ever understood what he meant. It was completely alien to the Jewish culture of the time. The idea that the deceased would pass immediately from this to another form of life was completely alien to the Jewish culture of that time.
In the last two centuries before Christ, in Israel, they had begun to speak of an “awakening of those who sleep in the Region of the dust” (Dn 12:2). But this awakening was projected very far. It was believed that it would only be realized at the end of the world.
The wisest among the rabbis assured that the righteous, the martyrs who had sacrificed themselves for their faith, would have their life that had been brutally taken away given back. When on earth the long-awaited kingdom of peace and universal justice would have begun, the Lord would have brought them back to life and would have made them participate in the joy of the completely renovated world. The fate of the wicked, however, was eternal death. Their end would be like that of animals and plants: none would have preserved even their memory.
Only the Pharisees believed in this “awakening from the Region of the dust.” The Sadducees—who were the priestly caste who officiated in the temple in Jerusalem—did not believe in any form of life after death. The simple people, the mass of the people had concrete problems of survival in this world and did not have much time to quibble about another world.
This being the widespread mentality, nobody, on that first day after the Sabbath, could expect a resuscitation of the body of Jesus. The only consoling thought that someone probably cultivated was the vague hope of a return to life in the end times.
When women reached the tomb, here’s the surprise: the stone was rolled away. They entered and were amazed not finding the body of Jesus.
They do not understand. They are still not able to properly interpret the sign that God wished to place before their amazed and incredulous eyes. They would have to reflect, remember and understand the words of resurrection that they had repeatedly heard from the Master.
Their first thought was rather different: the thieves entered the tomb.
Despite the death penalty imposed by the Roman law against those who violated the tombs, the removal of objects and furnishings of the tombs was common practice. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him”—Mary Magdalene tells Peter and the other disciple (Jn 20:2).
A timid thought—has the vital spirit revived the body of Jesus?—has probably crossed the mind of women, but it was immediately taken as absurd.
Then they remained “uncertain”, or rather—as the evangelist’s text literally says—found themselves in a “no way out” situation (v. 4).
At that point only a light from heaven could introduce them in the absolute novelty which they not only had never thought of, but which they were not even able to conceive.
“Two men in dazzling garments suddenly appeared” (v. 4). Later they will be identified as angels (Lk 24:23). Mark speaks of “a young man”, Matthew of “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven”, John of “two angels.”
The literary language employed by each of the Evangelists is different, but the message is the same. The sky sends its light to illuminate the mystery of death, to give a response to the greatest of the enigmas that always anguish man.
The women’s reaction to the splendor of God’s light is the religious fear. They bowed their faces to the ground, taking the attitude of those who accept in a respectful and devoted way the revelation of heaven.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?—they are asked—You won’t find him here. He is risen” (vv. 5-6).
Resuscitation is an experience that can be noted, the resurrection—that is, the final entry into the form of immortal life proper of God—is not verifiable by the senses. It is not a discovery of man’s mind or is the result of reasoning and logical deductions; it can be revealed only by God.
The tomb is empty not because the victim has temporarily escaped death, but because God has transformed it into a womb that gave birth to a new life. God was the midwife that caused the birth.
The women no longer have to look for Jesus in the realm of the dead. He is the Living One and with his death, he emptied every tomb.
From Easter Day onward it is foolish to think of meeting in the cemetery those who have left this world. There only the remains, atoms, molecules that do not enter heaven, are found. The loved one we seek is living with Christ, with God.
The women—like us today—wanted to see the One who can be seen only with the eyes of faith.
The heavenly messengers indicate to them—and to us—the way to meet him,
“Remember what he told you in Galilee” (v. 6).
Remember his Word, seek him in his Word!
It is through this Word that you will meet and “see” him.
“And they remembered” (v. 8).
This is the time when their heart is opened to faith in the Risen One.
It is the memory of the words of the Lord that sheds light on the events, otherwise absurd, that happened to Jesus. It gives a positive meaning also to all the dead of today.
In Luke’s gospel, women have a special place. They are placed next to the Twelve, following Jesus going through towns and villages preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God (Lk 8:1-3).
On Easter day they reach the highest point of their mission. They are the first to be involved in the revelation of the sky; they are the first to remember the Word and to proclaim the Resurrection.
In Jewish culture, women’s testimony had no value.
God disrupts not only the expectations of men, but also their judging criteria: He chooses—as Paul says—“what the world considers foolish to shame the wise… what the world considers weak to shame the strong… God has chosen common and unimportant people, making use of what is nothing to nullify the things that are what in the world is low and despised, what counts for nothing” to carry out his designs (1 Cor 1:27-28).
The reaction of the apostles to the women’s news is the most natural: “Those who heard did not believe the seemingly nonsensical story” (v. 11).
Throughout the New Testament, the term “delusions” occurs only here and gives the idea of how the resurrection was an absurd thought that not even touched the mind of an Israelite.
When, in his defense speech in front of the prosecutor, Paul will mention the resurrection of Jesus. Festus stops him saying: “Paul, are you mad; your great learning has deranged your mind” (Acts 26:24).
Peter does not believe, but leaves and begins the journey the women took: he goes first to the tomb and there he sees the linen cloths and encounters the signs of death. They are the only reality that human eyes can verify.
His reaction, however, is no longer disbelief, but the wonder.
It is the first step that he makes towards the faith. He will make the decisive step only when the Risen One will “remind” him of the words he had said (Lk 24:44) and will open the mind to understand the Scriptures (Lk 24:45-47).
Luke, more than the other evangelists, points out the difficulty of the apostles to accept the revelation of the sky, their unbelief, their wonder.
Their story is ours, the journey of faith they traveled is ours.