“The Review of Life and the Covenant of Eternal Salvation”
Homily for Easter Vigil Mass
April 8, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
The spiritual masters tell us that a periodic review of life is necessary for growth in the spiritual life. Every so often we should look back over the significant moments of our life to understand how God has been working and to where He has been leading us, which will in turn help us to understand His will for us in the present moment.
Review of Salvation History
In this unique Easter Vigil ceremony, with its four parts and nine readings from Scripture, the Church gives us a sort of review of life on a much grander scale: the movement of God throughout His plan of salvation for us, a sort of history of our life as the human race in our relationship with God. The seven readings from the Old Testament give us a few of the highlights of how God was going to work out our salvation.
It begins, logically, at the beginning: the creation of the world, and of the man and the woman to “be fertile and multiply” and to “fill the earth and subdue it.” We see here the original plan for which God designed us: harmony among human relations and humans with God, and harmony in the created order. Of course, we know it doesn’t end there. There was a turning away, a disobedience of our first parents, and so we as a human race lost our friendship with God and fell out of His good graces. But God does not abandon us.
With the calling of Abraham God began working out His plan: Abraham was to be the father of the people He chose to prepare the world for the fulfillment of His plan. And in the story we heard about the sacrifice of Isaac, God gives us a hint of how He would do it: the son – Abraham’s only son by his wife Sarah – carries the wood up the hill for his sacrifice, just as God’s Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, would carry the wood of the Cross up Mount Calvary to offer his life in sacrifice for us. God provides instead a ram for the sacrifice, to indicate that His Son will serve as the true Lamb of sacrifice. And He also sends a clear message here that sets His law apart from the rest of the ancient world of the time, where the pagan cults practiced child sacrifice. The revelation of His truth is to put an end to that.
He is a God who comes to the rescue of His people, as we heard about in the description of the defining moment of salvation in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus, when He leads His people out of slavery in Egypt and sets them on the path to the Promised Land. The miraculous crossing of the Red Sea revealed to God’s people His saving power. But what happens right afterwards? They turn around and see the desert wasteland before them and begin to panic. Where will we find water? Where will we find food? How are we going to find their way? Already they want to go back to Egypt, where they at least had food to eat and a sense of security. And all throughout those forty years they would repeatedly rebel against God Who was guiding them to the land He promised to give them, protecting them, and providing for them.
God nonetheless continued to love His people, even as a bridegroom loves his bride, calling them back to Himself, to a mystical nuptial union with Him, as we are told by the prophet Isaiah. The creation of the man and the woman at the very beginning imprints on the world the sign of the life God created for us with Him; the complementary intimacy between the man and the woman signifies the communion with God for which He created us. And we also hear from Isaiah that Israel has a special mission to the whole world, for through this people all nations shall come to know God and be joined to His people, even those unknown to Israel herself.
At times, though, God had to bring His people low because of their persistent rebelliousness, but only in order to win them back to Himself. And so He had to allow their kingdom to be destroyed and the people taken into exile, for they had “defiled [their own land] by their conduct and deeds,” that is, by breaking the covenant He had made with them by making covenants with pagan nations and worshiping their idols, as we hear from the prophet Ezekiel. But Ezekiel also assures the people that God will bring them back from the land of exile, a sort of second exodus, when they will return to the freedom of their own land, the original Promised Land that God had in store for them. And through it all God teaches them His way, as we hear from the prophet Baruch. He makes known His ways, His truth, with the assurance that those who follow in that way and cling to it will live.
The Pattern of the Human Condition
Thus is revealed the patience of God: He put all of creation into place with perfect harmony, and then our first parents rebelled against that, and so we fell out of His grace; He then comes up with a plan to get us out of this mess we got ourselves into, beginning with His original chosen people, the ancient people of Israel, whom He rescues from slavery in Egypt and guides to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they consistently rebel, turn their backs on Him, fail to trust that He’s really there for them, and instead worship false gods.
Nonetheless, He delivers them into the land He promised them and they take possession of it, establishing themselves there and eventually building up a kingdom. Still, they continue to break their covenant with Him, returning again, over and over, to the worship false gods, to the point that their kingdom is destroyed and they are taken into exile. However, God nevertheless promises to bring them back to their own land.
Do you detect a pattern here? It is a repeated pattern of God’s goodness and His people’s rejection of Him. And so He continually had to make covenants with them; they kept violating His covenants, and so God continued to renew them: a covenant with Noah, a covenant with Abraham, a covenant with Moses, a covenant with David. He had to keep doing this because of how fickle and rebellious the people were.
The New and Eternal Covenant
Thank goodness we are not like them! Oh, wait a minute, aren’t we also the people of God? No, sadly enough, this is the human condition, the condition of all of us. Happily, though, God knows this; after all, He created us. Thus He fulfills His plan by establishing a new Covenant that lasts forever. After all the wondrous acts of salvation He worked for His people, He now works the greatest of all beyond which it would be impossible to go: sending His Only-Begotten Son to seal the Covenant with his blood on the Cross. And we know where it ends: “[Jesus] has been raised [from the dead] just as He said.”
These words from the Gospel are so packed with the Church’s Easter joy that we pray them multiple times a day all throughout the Easter season, when the Angelus – the Marian hymn that is prayed at noon and 6:00 every day as a constant reminder to us of the saving mystery of the Incarnation – is replaced by the Regina Caeli, the hymn of rejoicing to our Blessed Mother in which we pray to her: “rejoice, for he whom thou didst merit to bear has risen as he said.”
As St. Paul makes clear to us, God has made this eternal Covenant with each one of us at our baptism. Christ has set the pattern for us by his death and Resurrection, and he has revealed to us his teaching, the truth that is the wisdom for us to live by so that we can follow that pattern, the life that leads to eternal life.
And yet we are still here in this world, subject to our fickle human nature. How often we, too, rebel against God, and how often God has to bring us low, too, so that He can win us back to Himself. But this is the Good News: His Covenant is eternal, He will never take it back, even when we fail to live by it. It is ultimately the same sin, in every age: a failure to trust God, to trust that He is guiding us to a better place and that His way is the way to life. If we trust God, and follow His way, clinging to His teaching, it will end where God originally created us to be: in the Resurrection, and friendship with him forever in heaven.
It is good to review the significant moments of our life periodically, for God has an individualized plan of salvation for each one of us. The sooner we acknowledge the truth He reveals to us and how life-giving is the way He teaches us, the happier we will be. Christ’s Resurrection is the promise of that perfect happiness, the true Promised Land that is the glory of his deathless Kingdom. To him be all praise and glory, now and ever and forever. Amen.