April 10, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Easter Vigil
Reading I (Genesis 1:1-2:2) Reading II (Genesis 22:1-18)
Reading III (Exodus 14:15-15:1) Reading IV (Isaiah 54:5-14)
Epistle (Romans 6:3-11) Gospel (St. Luke 24:1-12)
In the twenty-fourth chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel which we will hear next week, as the disciples of Jesus are walking along the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears to them, and we are told that He interpreted for them every passage of Scripture which referred to Himself. That must have been an incredible walk as the disciples listened to Our Lord describing literally every passage of Scripture, because they are all about Him. What we see in the readings tonight shows us how it works. All of the readings we heard today demonstrate how what we see around us and what we have heard so many times in the Sacred Scriptures were prefigurations of Our Lord Himself.
We hear, for instance, in the first reading today from the Book of Genesis all about the glory of God’s creation and how He started with nothing and worked His way up to humanity, whom He created in His own image and likeness. We heard in the second reading about Abraham and how he had this son that God had promised (whom he had awaited for years), and now God was asking Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice: to place the wood for the holocaust on his own son’s shoulders and walk to a place called Mount Moriah, the place which would later be called the town of Salem, the place which Abraham called “Yahweh-yireh”. When they put the two words together, it becomes what we call it today: “Yireh-salem” or Jerusalem. It is in that place that Abraham spoke one of the most astounding prophecies that is contained in Scripture when his son Isaac asks, “Here is the wood and here is the fire, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” And while the translation is put into the English the way that we would be able to understand it, it is not quite what it says in the Hebrew. It says in Hebrew, God will provide Himself the sacrifice. When we read in the third reading today from the Book of Exodus about the Israelites who had been enslaved in Egypt and now were brought forth into freedom as God opened the Red Sea for them and they passed through the waters, when they came to the other side of the waters and they saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore, they sang the song of praise to God.
Now we see how all of this prefigures Our Lord, the One Who first created us in His image and likeness. And then the One Who is uncreated took to Himself a created nature and became one of us, took a nature that was made in His own image and likeness (which He had already seen was very good) and now He raised it to a new dignity, uniting our nature to the divine nature in the unity of one Person. This one Person is the Son Who had been promised right from the very beginning in Genesis 3:15, that there would be enmity between the devil and the woman, between her offspring and his. So we knew that there would be a male child born of a woman who was going to come into this world; and it took thousands of years as we waited, long beyond what the expectations would have been, just like with Abraham. This time, in the same city bearing the same name – Jerusalem – the Son of God took the wood for the sacrifice upon His shoulders. He was indeed God Himself, the Lamb Who had been prepared for sacrifice, and He offered Himself; this time, God, not sparing the knife, but allowing the death of His Son so that each one of us could live.
After His death, as we profess in the Apostle’s Creed, Our Lord descended into hell (more specifically Sheol or the place of the dead), into the prison where the people had been enslaved, all of those who had been born from the time of Adam and Eve all the way up through even Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist. All of those who were awaiting Christ, as well as all of those who would be condemned, were all there in the one place of slavery. Our Lord entered into that place and He preached the Gospel to those who had believed in His coming so that they would be able to make that explicit act of faith in Himself. Those who had rejected God from the very beginning rejected Our Lord as well. And on the day of the Resurrection, just as the Red Sea opened for the chosen people, now the gates of death were opened and the chosen people were able to come forth into life. Death itself and the prince of death and all of his minions are the ones who lay crushed (dead on the seashore, if you will) lining the gates of hell so that life would reign over death.
Each one of us, as we heard in the New Testament reading from Saint Paul, have been baptized into Jesus Christ; and being baptized into Christ, we have been baptized into His death and resurrection. So we have been re-created. We have also been sacrificed. We have entered into the place of death and we have come forth into newness of life. We who were slaves to sin now are able to share in the glory of Christ because death has no more power over us because the Son of the woman is victorious over Satan and over death. And so today as we celebrate the single most important event in human history, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we must understand our own dignity as members of Christ to be able to see what the Son of God has done for us in taking on our nature, in allowing Himself to be born in the form of a slave, in making Himself the servant of all, in going into the very place of death – He Who is Life entering into the place of death – so that those who had chosen life over death would be able to live forever with Him.
That life is already within each one of us as we share in the very person, the very nature, and the very life of Jesus Himself. God has called us out of darkness into His own marvelous light, and He wants us now to walk as children of the light so that we can be truly dead to sin, to put all of that aside and live as true children, sons and daughters of God Himself. That is our dignity. That is the glory which is being offered to us. When we see how these few readings prefigure Our Lord, all of the rest of Scripture does the same. The Old Testament is all about Christ in one form or another. The New Testament reflects upon the life of Christ and the life of His Mystical Body, the Church. So as you read the Scriptures daily, ask yourself, “What does this mean about Our Lord? What does this mean for me, who is a member of Jesus Christ?” If God has chosen to work in such an extraordinary way because He loves us, then we are called also to love God in return in an extraordinary manner, to learn from the lesson of Our Lord, Who was willing to embrace death in order to give us life. If we are willing to embrace life, we can put to death within ourselves those things which are not of God so that we can live for God alone. Just as those people who were in that place of death 2,000 years ago came out as Jesus shattered the gates of hell and opened the way to life, so too, we who share already in that mystery spiritually will one day enter into it physically as well, as each one of us will have to embrace death just as Jesus did, knowing that it is not the end but rather a transition from this vale of tears to a place of glory for those who believe. And so it is not something that we fear, provided that we live the life of Christ, provided that we embrace life now so that we will be able to enjoy it forever.
That is the glory we celebrate today. Our Lord – the Promised Son, the One Who was willing to be sacrificed, the One Who was willing to go into the place of slavery – has freed you and me, His chosen people, so that we would be able to share forever in the life and the glory that He has won for us.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.