Today is Holy Saturday and in the liturgy we relive the history of our salvation. For whereas the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday date back to the liturgies celebrated at the sacred sites in Jerusalem in the fourth century, the liturgy we celebrate today, the paschal vigil, at the climax of which the catechumens are baptised, goes back much further, right back to the earliest days of the Christian Church.
Central to today’s liturgy is the reading of twelve prophecies, in which we recall and relive the history of our salvation. It may seem at first sight a long and laborious feature of the liturgy, making this the longest service of the liturgical year. But it is actually central to our understanding of salvation, from the creation to the fall, through the calling of Israel, their long and troubled history in expectation of the coming of the Christ who would redeem both Israel and the world from slavery to sin and death. This is the history which the newly baptised are making their own “This is the night in which thou didst first cause our forefathers, the children of Israel”. We can say “our forefathers” not “their forefathers” because we who have been baptised into Christ, having died to sin and reborn to righteousness, are now ourselves taking our part in the history of our salvation. We are ourselves now part of the story we are hearing, for we are now inheritors of the promises of God by adoption and grace.
There is a special significance in hearing about our own ancestors from our earthly parents, whose history we are now continuing. How much more is this the case of our forefathers in the faith, of whose history we hear in the twelve prophecies. For, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, these are they who lived by faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off. Indeed, we can now see the things they desired to see and did not see them, and hear the things they desired to hear and did not hear them. For as St. Augustine put it, whereas the old covenant promised a saviour, but the sacraments of the new covenant actually give salvation.
Today the tendency is to play down the particularity of the events of salvation history. People prefer to focus on a more generalised religious experience, rather than on events that happened long ago and in a particular time and place. People ask what has this seemingly antiquarian recall of the past got to do with the trials and tribulations of the twenty first century? But both for the people of the old covenant and the people of the new covenant, the so called scandal of particularity is not a threat to faith, but rather a recalling of the foundational events of our faith. This is what we are celebrating today, the story of our salvation. Man was created in the image of God, but he fell from grace and became subject to sin and death. But God did not leave man to his own doom, but acted by choosing one people in whose seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Finally, God’s purposes for Israel and the world reached fulfilment through the sending of his Son into the world to redeem it from sin and death. We who have been baptised into Christ are now called to become by grace what he is by nature. We can now make this story our own as we live in the time between the coming of Christ in time and history in first century Palestine and his final coming in glory when God will be all in all and the world will finally be redeemed from sin and death, in that new heaven and that new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness
“O happy fault that merited so great a Redeemer! O truly blessed night, which alone deserved to know the time and hour in which Christ rose again from the grave!”