The Theme of Invitation and Covenant in the 15 OT Readings of Holy Saturday
Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 9, 2014
March is Antiochian Women's month, and this year, as every year, some of the women of the church have been asked to give the homilies. This year we will all be talking about the fifteen lessons from the Old Testament that are read every year on Holy Saturday morning during the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil.
This is the service that includes baptism, for those not yet baptized in the name of the Trinity, and chrismation for those wishing to be received into the Orthodox Church. The fifteen Old Testament lessons are read early in the service, just before the catechumens are baptized or chrismated. Part of their function is to provide final instruction for the catechumens - and a review for the rest of us.
In today's Gospel, you will recall that after Jesus invited Philip to follow him, Philip went to find his friend Nathaniel, and told him excitedly, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote!” Well, in these fifteen readings we will be looking at some of what Moses and the prophets wrote. These readings cover pretty much the whole history of our salvation, but certain themes are especially prominent, especially the themes of Covenant; Mission; Sacrifice and Passover; and Resurrection and Renewal. We'll be looking at each of these themes over the next four weeks. Today we'll look at four of the readings that all shed light on God's Covenant relationship with His people, before and after the coming of Christ.
The prophet Isaiah, in Reading 2 (from Isaiah 60), tells us that before the coming of Christ and His resurrection, darkness would be covering the earth and the people. Not physical, literal darkness, but the darkness of evil, hostility, lies, arrogant self serving. BUT, he says, light will come, like the rising of the sun. "The Lord will arise upon you,” he says, “and His glory will be seen upon you. The nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."
“The nations,” when he wrote this, were the Gentiles. They were all the nations and peoples who were not the people of God, not the "people of the covenant." At the dawn of recorded history God had established a covenant with Abraham, promising him and his descendants that out of all the peoples of the earth, they would be His people and He would be their God. The covenant was expanded through Moses with the addition of the Ten Commandments and all the laws that followed from them. But still the covenant made the Israelites, the Jews, God's special "chosen people."
But now Isaiah is prophesying that when the light of Christ arises upon His people, not only will dispersed Jews return but outsiders will be drawn to His light. They will come from all over the earth, Isaiah says, bringing gifts of their wealth – and he specifically mentions “gold and frankincense,” which the three wise men did bring from afar when Christ was born. All these outsiders will "proclaim the praise of the Lord." And here we are! We are those outsiders who were invited in to that covenant relationship with God. So on Holy Saturday when we hear the Second Reading, and when we sing "Shine, shine, O Jerusalem, for your light has come," we are proclaiming that Christ, our light, has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon us.
In Reading 7 (from Zephaniah 3), the prophet Zephaniah describes more about how it will be after the resurrection of Christ. He says, “'wait for me,' says the Lord, 'until the day I arise as a witness.'” That day would be Pascha, the day Christ arose from the dead. The prophet goes on to talk about gathering nations and assembling kingdoms, “purging them with the fire of his jealousy” before "chang[ing] the speech of the people to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord, and serve him with one accord." This sounds like the day of Pentecost, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, so that all the foreigners in the city heard in their own languages "the wonderful works of God."
Zephaniah goes on then to talk about the faithful remnant who will remain after the Lord has purged the arrogance, rebellion, and contempt from among His covenant people. This prophecy says "I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly, and they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord." They will "do no wrong and speak no lies." This remnant of Israel would reject the arrogant legalism of the Pharisees and acknowledge Christ as the Son of God. These were the people who became the Christian church, teaching everyone to live a life of humility, integrity, and trust in God. Their teachings are as important for us today as they were then, especially for those who are preparing to be initiated into the church.
Another reading that has to do with to Christian initiation is Reading 9, from Isaiah chapters 61 and 62. Here, on one level, Isaiah is prophesying the restoration of Zion, the place where the Lord dwelt among his people. On another level, the prophet's imagery also describes baptism. He says the Lord "has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels." In baptism we are clothed with salvation, covered with the righteousness of Christ. St Paul says the same thing in his letter to the Galatians, which we sing as the baptismal hymn: "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ."
While this reading describes what happens for each of us in baptism and chrismation, on yet another level it illuminates the covenant relationship between God and His people. Isaiah likens that relationship to the covenant of marriage, saying that the Lord will take delight in his people "as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride," and that “as a young man lives in wedlock with his bride, so shall your sons dwell with you.” This prophecy would be realized in the Church, which is called the "bride of Christ."
Reading 14, from Jeremiah 31, predicts a new covenant that the Lord will make with his people, not like the old one which the people repeatedly broke. Under the new covenant, the Lord says, “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” This knowledge of God will be available for everyone - because, the Lord says, "I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more." That's what happened as a result of the crucifixion, and we are reminded of it every time we receive communion, when the priest quotes the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”
So these four readings – numbers 2, 7, 9, and 14 – remind us that Christ our Light has come, and that through Him we have been invited into a new covenant relationship with God. We are His people. We are brought in to that covenant through our baptism, and our relationship is nourished every time we celebrate the Eucharist. And I love the reminder that He delights in us and commits Himself to us like a bridegroom! Our responsibility in the covenant is to respond to His love, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Next week we'll be looking at reading 11 and the second half of reading 4, both of which have to do with the Mission of the Servant, which was described by Isaiah and fulfilled by Christ.