Saturday, October 14, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 5.1): the Easter Vigil

This is the sixth article in a series of seven: use the following links to read part 1, part 2, part 3.1, part 3.2, and part 4.

In the previous articles in this series, I described the lectionary system of the Jewish liturgy by which readings from the Law of Moses (“Torah” in Hebrew) are paired with readings from the Prophets called “haftaroth”, which are chosen to match them thematically. I also described how this very ancient system influenced some very ancient features of the Roman lectionary, especially the readings of the Ember days, while noting various ways in which the Church of Rome altered the Jewish practice. For the purposes of this final article (in two parts), we must note one of these changes in particular.

In the Jewish lectionary, the haftaroth always come immediately after the portions of the Torah to which they correspond. On the Ember Saturday of Lent and September, however, the readings begin with two lessons from the books of Moses; the third reading then serves as the haftarah of the first, and the fourth of the second. This same arrangement is also used for the first eight of the Old Testament prophecies at the Easter vigil: first four readings from the Torah, then their four corresponding haftaroth. The last four, however, are paired as in the Jewish tradition.

Torah Haftarah
1. Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 2 5. Isaiah 54, 17 – 55, 11
2. Genesis 5, 31 – 8, 21
   (17 verses are omitted
from this passage
6. Baruch 3, 9-38
3. Genesis 22, 1-19 7. Ezekiel 37, 1-14
4. Exodus 14, 24 – 15, 1,
and Tract (15, 1-3)
8. Isaiah 4, 1-6,
and Tract (5, 1-2 & 7)
9. Exodus 12, 1-12
   (repeated from the Mass
of the Presanctified
10. Jonah 3, 1-10
   (repeated from the Mass
of Passion Tuesday
11. Deuteronomy 31, 22-30,
and Tract (32, 1-4)
12. Daniel 3, 1-24

First pair: Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 2 and Isaiah 54, 17 – 55, 11
The first reading from the book of Genesis describes the six days of Creation, and God’s rest on the seventh, which is of course part of the reason why the Jewish people rest on the Sabbath and keep it as their holy day. The seven repetitions of “God saw that it was good” were often adduced by the Church Fathers against the heresy known as Gnosticism, which claimed that the material creation was made by an evil (or at least strictly just, but not merciful) god of the Old Testament, and that Christ came to reveal another god, good and merciful, but who has nothing to do with the material creation.
God the Son as the Creator of the World, from a three-volume picture Bible created for St Louis IX, king of France, between 1226 and 1234, and later given to the Spanish King Alfonse X; it has been in the possession of the cathedral of Toledo since at least 1539. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
The corresponding haftarah reading begins with the words “This is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord, and their justice with me, saith the Lord”, perhaps a reference to the Israelites as their heirs of the Lord’s promises. The second verse, “All you that thirst, come to the waters” is of course intended as an invitation to Baptism. But the passage ends with verse 11, “So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.” In a Christian context, this means the Word, the Son of God the Father, and His agent in making the material creation (“through whom all things were made”), the creation that He saw was good.

Second pair: Genesis 5, 31 – 8, 21 and Baruch 3, 9-38
The second reading is the story of Noah’s ark, which St Peter himself (1 Pet. 3, 20-21) explains as a symbol of the Church, just as the waters of the flood are a symbol of Baptism. “(the Fathers in limbo) waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah, when the ark was being built, wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Whereunto baptism, being of the like form, now saveth you also.” This is also stated in the blessing of the baptismal font: “(God), who through the waters didst wash away the crimes of a guilty world, and in the very outpouring of the flood, didst signify regeneration, so in the mystery of one and the same element, there might be the end of the vices and the origin of the virtues.”
Part of a Christian sarcophagus of the 4th century, decorated with images from two of the prophecies of the Easter vigil, Noah and the Ark and the Three Children in the Furnace. In Hebrew (mostly unknown to the Christians in antiquity, even Jewish ones), Greek and Latin, the word for “ark” in Genesis 6, 14 etc. can also mean a box, chest or coffer. Noah’s ark is there often depicted as such for economy of space. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, released to the public domain by the photographer.)
The haftarah is taken from the prophet Baruch, a deuterocanonical book which is not accepted as Scriptural by the Jewish people. It addresses Israel directly four times, beginning with “Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life: give ear, that thou mayst learn wisdom”, and later, in verse 24, “O Israel, how great is the house of God, and how vast is the place of his possession!” This may be read an invitation to Israel to recognize that the house of God, i.e. the Church, symbolized by the ark, is in fact greater than just one nation, since the eight persons on board it are the ancestors of all the nations of the world, now called by Christ to the knowledge of the true God.

Verse 10 reads, “How happeneth it, o Israel, that thou art in thy enemies’ land?” In the context of the lectionary created by the Church of Rome, this refers to the condition of the Jewish diaspora after the Romans had ended their political independence, destroying first their temple and then their capital city. The words of verse 12, “Thou hast forsaken the fountain of wisdom” would refer to the Jews’ failure to accept Christ, “the power (virtus) of God, and the wisdom of God”, and institutor of the sacrament of Baptism. Verse 14, “Learn where is wisdom, where is strength (virtus)” would then be another invitation to them from the Church to accept Him.

Verse 26, “There were the giants, those renowned men that were from the beginning, of great stature, expert in war,” refers to a verse from the reading from Genesis (6,4), “Now giants were upon the earth in those days.” The prophecy ends with the words, “This is our God, and there shall no other be accounted of in comparison of him. He found out all the way of knowledge, and gave it to Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterwards he was seen upon earth, and conversed with men.” The last verse of course understood by the Church Fathers as a prophecy of the Incarnation; in this context, it is also an appeal to God’s beloved people to embrace the Incarnate one as the true Messiah.
The Prophets Jeremiah and Baruch, date uncertain (after 1600), by the Sienese painter Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti (1571-1639); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Third pair: Genesis 22, 1-19 and Ezekiel 37, 1-14
The third pair of readings unite a prophecy of Christ’s Passion with one of His Resurrection. (Благодарю тѧ, Отче Стефане!)

The third Torah reading, Genesis 22, 1-18, is the story somewhat inaccurately known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, who is, of course, not actually sacrificed in the end. (Jewish tradition calls it “the binding of Isaac.”) The oldest known sermon on Easter, the Paschal homily of St Melito of Sardis (ca. 170), refers to this as a prefiguration of the Sacrifice of another Son:

“Thus if you wish to see the mystery of the Lord, look at Abel who is likewise slain, at Isaac who is likewise tied up (59), … And he bore the wood on his shoulders, going up to slaughter like Isaac at the hand of his father. But Christ suffered. Isaac did not suffer, for he was a type of the passion of Christ which was to come… (frag. 9)”

Likewise, his contemporary St Irenaeus:

“Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood, follow (Christ). … For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up as a sacrifice to God his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.” (Adversus Haereses, 4, 5, 4)
The Vision of Ezechiel, 1630, by Francisco Collantes (Madrid, 1599-1656); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The haftarah, Ezekiel 37, 1-14, was accepted by the Church Fathers from the most ancient times as a prophecy of the resurrection of the body at the end of the world, and hence of the Resurrection of Christ that makes this possible. Again St Irenaeus:

“Now Isaias thus declares (26, 19), that He who at the beginning created man, did promise him a second birth after his dissolution into earth: ‘The dead shall rise again, and they who are in the tombs shall arise, and they who are in the earth shall rejoice. … ’ And Ezekiel speaks as follows: ‘And the hand of the Lord came upon me, and the Lord led me forth in the Spirit, and set me down in the midst of the plain, and this place was full of bones. … Thus saith the Lord to these bones, Behold, I will cause the spirit of life to come upon you, and I will lay sinews upon you, and bring up flesh again upon you, and I will stretch skin upon you, and will put my Spirit into you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. … ’ ”

This passage is cited to the same effect by Tertullian, St Cyprian and St Ambrose in the West, by Origen, St Cyril of Jerusalem and St John Chrysostom in the East, among many others.
In the Byzantine Rite, Orthros of Holy Saturday, one of the most beautiful services of the year (commonly called Jerusalem Matins), ends with a special synaxis of three readings: Ezekiel 37, 1-14; 1 Corinthians 5, 6-8 and Galatians 3, 13-14 (as a single reading, titled to the former); and Matthew 27, 62-66, the setting of the guards at the Lord’s tomb. In the Slavic tradition, the reading from Ezekiel may be sung according to a special tone, as heard in this recording made at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, seven years ago.

This English version is also very beautiful; the prophecy is preceded by a chant from a Psalm called a prokimen, like most Scriptural readings in the Byzantine Rite other than the Gospel. This recording skips the Epistle and its prokimen, and goes straight to the Alleluia before the Gospel, one of the most beautiful in the repertoire.

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