RENEWAL OF BAPTISMAL PROMISES – A PIOUS NOTE
The highlight of the Easter Liturgy among early Christians was the baptism of those who had been in long and arduous training in preparation for the great day of their incorporation into the Church. This assured them not only of the support and care of an extended family in a harsh and capricious world; it guaranteed them also the reward of eternal life through the forgiveness of sins and the operation of God’s grace. In witnessing Easter baptisms, the existing faithful were enabled and encouraged to remember their own baptism. In late antiquity, Bishops in their Easter sermons ‘provoked the remembrance of the sound of the splashing of water in the baptismal font, of the smell of the oil used in the anointing, of the feel of the textures of the white garments on their skin, and of the taste of the bread and the wine at the table of the Lord’s Supper’ (Martin Connell). With baptism the climax of the Easter ceremonies, the people of God were able to see and understand that their own humanity had been redeemed and wonderfully restored.
The development of the doctrine of Original Sin, however, and the concomitant fear that the unbaptised would suffer an eternal loss, led to the practice of infant baptism, early in a child’s life, irrespective of the time of year. Just as the humanity of Christ had been degraded in the anti-Arian fervour of the later fourth century, the Church would now lose the liturgical opportunity to celebrate at Easter the humanity of humanity itself, and to contemplate its own value in the divine plan.
Our contemporary liturgy retains the faintest of echoes of what went before: on Good Friday in the solemn prayers we remember ‘those to be baptised’, and it is usually possible to find a candidate or two to be initiated on Easter Day at dawn. The Roman Catholic ‘Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults’, an initiative which grew out of the second Vatican Council, has managed successfully to recapture some of the Church’s early baptismal practice, and there has been some attempt in our own Anglican Communion to learn from this.
For many of us, however, our only opportunity to celebrate our baptism comes at Easter in the Renewal of our Vows, either at dawn or in the later mid-morning Eucharist. It is an opportunity to be seized. Although many of us cannot remember the water, oil, fresh garments and warm bread of our own baptismal experience (even supposing such a wealth of symbol to have been employed) we must imagine and reconstruct that experience through the modest means of words spoken, and drops of water catapulted through the air from a sprig of rosemary. In this ‘aquatic communion’ with our Lord we discover afresh who we are, eternally cherished and commissioned for participation in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Whereas the Church’s ministers (clergy or not) renew their ministerial promises on Maundy Thursday, the whole people of God, all over the world, are invited and urged to use this great day of Easter for celebrating our vocation (than which there is none greater) to be the baptised presence of Christ in and for the world.
Many speak of the heightened emotion, the tears and joy attendant upon a renewal of marriage vows. Just as intensely should this be the case when we renew our intimate and eternal union with Christ our Lord and our Spouse.