The introduction to the Lectionary states that “at the Vigil on the holy night of Easter there are seven Old Testament readings which recall the wonderful works of God in the history of salvation.” Other church documents repeat this idea. Pastoral commentaries echo it too, though sometimes calling the readings “our family story” or something similar. Almost everyone I know thinks that the readings at the Easter Vigil are about history. I am not convinced.
There are seven Old Testament readings for the Paschal Vigil in our current lectionary: Creation (Genesis 1), the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), the Lord calls you back (Isaiah 54), come to the water (Isaiah 55), Divine Wisdom (Baruch 3), and I will give you a new heart (Ezekiel 36). If the goal is to recount history, this is a puzzling line up. Isn’t creation part of a mythic “pre-history”? Why the sacrifice of Isaac? Why the crossing of the Red Sea but not the making of the Mosaic covenant? Where is the kingship, David, Solomon, the Temple? The chosen prophetic readings are hardly representative.
Hearing the word “history,” our minds naturally go to the past. But these readings often seem much more concerned with the future. The work of God in creation establishes the order and beauty of our world—an ongoing wonder. The restoration of Isaac to Abraham renews the promises of God for the flourishing of Abraham’s descendants yet to come. The crossing of the Red Sea transforms a ragtag group of fleeing slaves into a free people with a future before them.
The prayers following the Old Testament readings highlight their implications within the Christian dispensation, and within these prayers baptism is a constant theme pointing us forward even within the liturgy itself. Indeed the Missal produced following the Council of Trent (1570) explicitly described the Old Testament readings of the Vigil as “the final catechesis of the catechumens” before baptism.