Saturday, October 21, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 5.2): the Easter Vigil, Concluded

This is the final article in a series of seven: use the following links to read part 1, part 2, part 3.1, part 3.2part 4, and part 5.1

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, of which this is the second), 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

Fourth pair: Exodus 14, 24 – 15, 1 (with tract, 15, 1-3), and Isaiah 4, 1-6 (with tract, 5, 1-2 & 7)
Following the lead of St Paul (1 Cor. 10, 1-2), the Church Fathers took the crossing of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus as a symbol of baptism. This is why the story is read at the Easter vigil, the baptismal ceremony par excellence, in nearly all ancient rites (Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, Byzantine etc.), while the prayer which accompanies it at the Roman vigil of Pentecost explicitly says that “the Red Sea is the form of the sacred font.”
On the other hand, the reading from Isaiah 4 which provides its haftarah (with the tract that follows it from chapter 5) is uniquely Roman. The connection of this passage with the sacrament of baptism is attested in St Jerome’s Commentary on Ezekiel (lib. iv), as he explains chapter 16, 9, in which the Lord says to Israel, “I washed thee with water, and cleansed away thy blood from thee… ”

“ ‘I washed thee’, he says, with the water of saving baptism. For ‘unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ (John 3, 5). And elsewhere we read, ‘He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ (Mark 1, 8). And Isaiah also (4, 4) speaks of this baptism, saying, ‘The Lord will wash the uncleanness of the sons and daughters of Sion, and cleanse the blood from their midst, with a spirit of judgment, and a spirit of burning.’ ” (Jerome quotes this from one of the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint, rather than his own.)

There is a further parallel between these passages. Exodus says that “the Lord looking upon the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, slew their host” (14, 24), while Isaiah says (4, 5) that “the Lord will create upon every place of Mount Sion, and where He is called upon, a cloud by day, … and the brightness of a flaming fire in the night: for over all the glory shall be a protection.”
The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1519, by Raphael and assistants; fresco in the Vatican Loggias. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In Exodus 14, 20, the fire and cloud are the means by which God protects the one people, standing between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. In Isaiah, on the other hand, the Lord will create the cloud and fire “where He is called upon”, which is to say, by all the nations that are made His disciples in baptism. And thus, the glory of the Lord, which the children of Israel proclaim as they pass the Red Sea (“this is my God, I will glorify Him”, verse 3 of the canticle), becomes a protection over all the world. This is beautifully expressed by the oration said after the tract from Exodus.

“O God, Whose ancient miracles we see shining forth also in our days, as by the water of regeneration Thou workest unto the salvation of the gentiles, that which by the power of Thy right hand Thou didst confer upon one people, … grant that the fullness of the whole world may pass into (becoming) the children of Abraham, and into the dignity of Israel. (in Abrahæ filios et in Israëlíticam dignitátem … tránseat…”)

This word “transeat – pass” refers to the verse 16 of the canticle, “until thy people, O Lord, pass by (pertranseat): until this thy people, which thou hast possessed, pass by,” for it is in their passing through the waters of baptism that the Lord takes possession of the fullness of the whole world.

The tract which follows the reading from Isaiah irenically omits the verses of chapter 5 spoken in criticism of Israel, which I have here italicized. (The text of this canticle is also in an Old Latin translation.)

“The beloved one had a vineyard on a horn (i.e. hill), in a fruitful place. And he fenced it in, and dug the stones out of it, and planted it with the choicest vines, and built a tower in the midst thereof, and dug a winepress therein. And he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. … I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be wasted: I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down. And I will make it desolate: … For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.”

Here again, the prayer that follows speaks of the conversion of the nations: “O God, who … hast made manifest among all the children of Thy Church, that in every place of Thy dominion, Thou art the sower of good seeds, and the cultivator of chosen branches: grant to Thy peoples who are reckoned by the name of the vines and harvests, that they … may become rich in worthy fruit.”

The Latin verb “censentur”, translated here as “reckoned”, is related to the word “census”, and distantly reminds us that Christ was born for our salvation when the Roman Empire was holding a census of the whole world. It can also mean “honored”, which is to say, that the nations are now honored in receiving the dignity which once belonged to Israel alone, that of being the Lord’s people.

– For the final four prophecies, each reading of the Torah is followed immediately by its haftarah.

Fifth pair: Exodus 12, 1-11, and Jonah 3, 1-10
Both of these readings are used elsewhere, the first at the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday, and the second on Passion Tuesday. It may seem counterintuitive to repeat a lesson from the previous day, but the reason for doing so is explained by its haftarah; the theme that unites them is feasting and fasting.

The lesson from Exodus describes the preparation rite of the Paschal lamb for the great feast of Passover, the rite which was taking place even as the Lord was undergoing His Passion. The lamb, of course, is prepared so that it might be consumed, as also is the One whom John the Baptist was first to call “the Lamb of God.” The Easter vigil is the first occasion on which the newly baptized, for whom these readings are especially (though not exclusively) chosen, receive the Lamb of God in Holy Communion. And perhaps it was also for this reason that the Agnus Dei was never added to the Communion rite of the Easter vigil, the only Mass at which it is not said, since this reading effectively held its place.

The Byzantine Rite, following the ancient rite of Jerusalem, reads the whole book of Jonah at the Easter vigil, while the Ambrosians have it at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This is done, of course, because Christ Himself calls His Resurrection “the sign of Jonah”, and many ancient depictions of the prophet show him coming out of the whale as a symbol of the Resurrection.
A third-century sarcophagus from the Pio-Christian collection of the Vatican Museums. This is one of the best preserved and most elaborate representations of the Jonah story, and is therefore known as “the Jonah Sarcophagus,” although there are many other ancient sculptures and paintings of the story. Note that Noah is seen standing in a square ark above the sea-monster on the right, a clever use of the extra space to add another important Biblical episode.
The Roman Rite, on the other hand, choses just the third chapter, in which God’s wrath against the Ninevites is appeased by their fasting. This teaches the catechumens, and reminds the baptized, that worthy participation in the Holy Eucharist must be accompanied by sincere repentance for our sins, and that the Church routinely prepares itself for the celebration of the Mass, and for the service of God more generally, by fasting. The story is also a reminder that in Christ and in the Church, the fullness of the whole world passes into becoming the children of Abraham, since the Ninevites are a pagan nation.

Sixth pair: Deuteronomy 31, 22-30 (with tract, 32, 1-4) and Daniel 3, 1-24
The theme of this last pair of readings is the worship of the one true God, and the rejection of idolatry.

In the lesson from Deuteronomy, as the Torah nears its conclusion, and Moses is soon to die, he foretells the repeated lapses into idolatry which will characterize so much of Israel’s future. “You will do wickedly, and will quickly turn aside from the way that I have commanded you: and evils shall come upon you in the latter times, when you shall do evil in the sight of the Lord.” The prayer that follows the tract, therefore, asks for the transformation of idolatrous peoples, in language that reminds us of the Crossing of the Red Sea: “may that which was declared unto vengeance pass (transeat) unto salvation (in salutem)”, where the canticle of Exodus 15 reads, “factus est mihi in salutem – He hath become my salvation.”

In the book of Daniel, on the other hand, we have an example of Israel rejecting idolatry, and of willingness to accept martyrdom in order to remain faithful to God, as the three children say to the king of Babylon, “It not even allowed that we answer thee concerning this matter. For behold our God, whom we worship, is able to save us … and to deliver us out of thy hands, o king. But if He will not … we will not worship thy gods…”
Detail of a Christian sarcophagus of the Constantinian period (ca. 305-35), known as the Sarcophagus of Adelphia, discovered in the church of St John in Syracuse, Sicily, in 1872. On the far left, the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar points to a bust of himself set on a column, the gesture by which he commands the three children to worship it. Even though the Biblical text states quite unmistakably that the emperor made an enormous “statue”, in early Christian art, it is usually represented as a bust on a column, since that it what the Romans used. (On the right side are represented the Miracle at Cana and one of the three Magi. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Davide Mauro; CC BY-SA 4.0)
Babylon was taken by the Persians in 539 BC, as noted later on in Daniel (5, 31), and then reduced to insignificance by the conquests of Alexander the Great; although it remained inhabited, and even had a Christian bishopric, it was very small and unimportant. When the Apostles Peter (1 Pet. 5, 13) and John (Apoc. passim) speak of it, they are actually talking about the Roman Empire, which in the early centuries, persecuted the Christians principally because of their refusal to worship the emperor’s image. This last lesson, therefore, is a reminder to the catechumens, just before they depart for the baptistery and the beginning of their new life in Christ, that as Christians, they are called and required to imitate the people of Israel at their greatest, and worship none other than the one true God.

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