The heart of Easter, of course, is the reading of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection – or rather, the impact of that resurrection on those who discovered it. But what does it mean? What do we discover when we discover the Resurrection of Christ?
We can perhaps better understand Easter if we understand that, in another sense, the heart of Easter is Baptism. Historically, that is the reason for the celebration. In the early Church, every Sunday celebrated the Resurrection – but Easter (originally tied more to Passover) became the time to baptize catechumens. We noted at the beginning of Lent that the pre-Easter season, too, was originally about the catechumens.
In the Middle Ages a strange thing happened: the Easter Vigil withered away, and gradually became a sort of liturgical odd duck on Holy Saturday morning. The reason, again, seems to have been the catechumens – once there was no one to baptize, Easter Vigil lost its original significance, though Easter was still celebrated as, by now, the center of the cycle of Christ’s mysteries.
The Easter Vigil was restored to Saturday night only recently, by Pope Pius XII, in 1951 – both as part of a rediscovery of liturgical spirituality, and as a rediscovery of the catechumenate.
In fact, I recently learned that the Church’s liturgical norms specifically say that baptized non-Catholic Christians should NOT be received at Easter Vigil (as I was!), precisely because it undermines the centrality of Baptism in that Mass. (And, indeed, undermines the doctrine of Baptism, by confusing the radical rebirth which is Baptism with the less radical reception into full communion of those who are already baptized.)
Though the Gospel is central, as Christ is radically central, the interpretive key to Easter is in the New Testament readings.
At the Vigil, the great reading that follows the Gloria is from Romans 6: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Absolutely essential to Paul’s understanding of the Paschal mystery – at the very center, in fact, of Christianity itself – is what Augustine calls the “two resurrections.” There is the resurrection of the body – but also the resurrection of the soul. Christ promises to raise up our body, yes – but far more important, far more central, is that he raises up our soul, from death in sin, to life in Christ.
Easter is not primarily about bodies, it is about souls. “Our old self was crucified” – not bodily, but spiritually, in Baptism – “with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. The death he died, he died” not primarily in the body, but “to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The Epistle for Easter morning, from Colossians, repeats the same theme: “If you have been raised with Christ” – in the soul, by Baptism, though we have not yet risen bodily from the dead – “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” No, we have not yet received the resurrection of the body – but we have received the resurrection of the soul.
That is the joy of Easter: we find that God has the power to raise up, not only our bodies, but our sinful souls.
The readings at the Vigil all attest to this great reality. They go through salvation history, yes, but they speak above all about the resurrection that Christ will bring to our souls.
This is most clear in the later readings, from the prophets. The seventh, Ezekiel, says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” The waters of Baptism give new life to the soul.
The sixth, from Baruch, says, “O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies?” Why do we dwell in death? “Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.” Find conversion in Christ: this is the message of Baptism and repentance.
In the fifth, Isaiah asks: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” The solution is not a deeper focus on the body – that is what is crucified – but, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.” Catechumen, be converted by God’s holy Word! Renounce the empty promises!
And in the fourth, Isaiah says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” likening their situation to Noah and the flood. We have been abandoned to sin and death – but Christ rescues us, by conversion: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children. In righteousness you shall be established.” Not only in bodily life, but in the life of the soul.
The first three, more narrative readings teach the same things. Creation culminates in the image of God, and God’s blessing of man. God did not only make our bodies, he made our souls. God who can lift up the body can lift up our souls as well.
At the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham says, “The Lord will provide.” Abraham has absolute trust in God’s provision for him – and lives the coresponding life of conversion.
And in Exodus, “the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea,” as we walk through Baptism, “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians,” as he saves us from sin.
In what areas do you doubt God’s power to bring resurrection to your soul?