15 April 2006

easter vigil

easter vigil

At this time of year, many Christian traditions maintain the ancient custom of publicly receiving catechumens into the church through baptism. This is done on the vigil of Pascha, the night before we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. I have my doubts about the biblical foundations for any kind of extended catechumenate as a pre-requisite for baptism, though I'm sure practical and pastoral arguments could be made in its favor, especially in the early church context of converts from outright paganism. Nevertheless, the Vigil of Christ's resurrection is a wonderful occasion for meditation upon the mystery of holy baptism.

The Vigil is not, after all, just for those being baptized, but is also a time for all the faithful to renew their own baptismal vows, to engage in what the Westminster Larger Catechism calls "improving our baptism," which is to be undertaken especially when we are present at the baptism of others. The Catechism goes on to describe that "improvement" as involving:
...serious and thankful consideration of the nature of [baptism], and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein: by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ, and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
Or, to use a more wide-angle lens with which to view the sacrament, in baptism we are caught up into the story of God's mission in the world to extend his salvation to the ends of the earth for the renewing of humanity and, in us, all creation. Both our personal experience of salvation - remitting of sins and newness of life - and the broader story of God's redemption of the world are taken up and carried forward in baptism, as we are knit together by the same Spirit into a single new humanity in Christ.

As it is practiced today, rooted in early traditions, Easter Vigil celebrates Christian baptism within a catena of biblical texts that recall the world's first creation, Noah's flood, Israel's crossing of the Red Sea, the Spirit's revival of dry bones, and several other texts that speak of deliverance, cleansing, new life, and the gathering together of God's people, culminating in a reading from Paul's teaching on baptism in Romans 6 and the account of the resurrection of Jesus. In this way, baptism is placed firmly within the context of the sweeping biblical narrative, of all God's promises and typological deliverances, as those are taken up and fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our baptism into that dead and now risen Person.

In a recent contribution to Common Grounds Online, Greg Thompson makes the following helpful observation:
One of the things that is most fundamental to our identity as a church is that we are people of a shared story. We are a community formed by and gathered around a common conception of the real, the true, and the beautiful; we inhabit a common story. And when we worship God together, we step into that ancient and divinely wrought story and embody it anew in our own time, language, and locale. ("Baptism: The Old Story Made New")
Thompson goes to apply this to baptism, particularly the baptism of our covenant children, noting that "God's story has always had signs," so that baptism is a way of entering into that story.

In particular, Thompson notes, that story is prior to us - it began long before us and comes to us as our own story only as part of a greater story. Thus, in baptism, we learn about "the prior and pursuing nature of God's love," the story of which "flows through time and space like a mighty river" and into which we are baptized in order to be "swept away into the life of faith."

In whatever manner we draw out the implications of baptism for us personally, for our children, for the identity of the church, and for God's mission in the world, the renewal of our baptismal vows is a call to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, to repent and turn toward Christ, and to trust with a living faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and continues to offer us by his Spirit. Thus almost all traditional baptismal rites include an exchange such as the following:
Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.
In situations where the baptismal font stands near the western door of the church, those to be baptized often stand facing out of the doors, out into the world as they renounce Satan, his empty works and pomps, and the temptations of their own flesh. As the baptismal candidates begin to confess the faith of the church in the words of the Apostles' Creed, they turn eastward into the church, turning their backs against those powers they have renounced. In this way the "turning" involved in repentance is embodied and acted out in the very orientation of those to be baptized, a tangible reminder of what all the baptized are called to do daily in a hundred little ways.

But baptism isn't merely a matter of personal repentance. Talk of "the evil powers" afoot in the world marks baptism also very much as a public act of defiance, in God's Spirit, against those powers. New life within God's church and a new stance over against the powers that dominate the world go hand in hand. In his book, A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp notes the way in which "baptism is the rite most explicitly addressing our constitution and cultivation as a Christian people." Life in the church is, under the sign of baptism, "a kind of resocialization, an enculturation according the standards of the kingdom of God rather than this world" (99).

Clapp goes on to explicate this in further detail, noting how on several occasions Paul
...reminds believers that they have a new identity because they have been baptized into Christ and adopted as his sisters and brothers. When children are adopted they take on new parents, new siblings, new names, new inheritances - in short, a new culture. And those who have been baptized into Christ, according to Paul, have been adopted by God. (100)
As Clapp suggests, baptism therefore means having God as our new Father, other Christians as our new siblings, "Christian" as our new family name, and the life of God's people together as the church as our new inheritance. He concludes, "It is in this profound sense that Paul can speak of conversion and baptism creating a new person - even a new world (2 Cor 5:17)" (100).

Moreover, this is a matter of our public identity, shifting that identity not only away from merely biological ties, but also away from social ties outisde of the church, ties of nation-state, social class, ethnicity, and geography. In this way, baptism is a public act, and a deeply subversive one at that, with political overtones by which the church is constituted as a "distinctive and challenging culture" (101). When the church comes too closely to be identified with prevalent cultural values - structures of authority, social mores, notions of excellence, sources of worth - then the force of baptism is blunted. Our turning away from the western doors of the church falters and only with hesitation and a backwards glance, reminiscent of Lot's wife, do we turn our backs against the powers.

Of course, as Leonard Vander Zee notes in his book on the sacraments, "Our turning from sin and turning to God in baptism is not a matter of our becoming worthy of our baptism, as though the fulfillment of our obligations validates our baptism" (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper 117). As our Reformed standards repeatedly note, baptism has an ongoing significance for our entire life in Christ that always remains graciously prior to our response, thus also calling forth that faith-filled response.

We read in the Belgic Confession (1561), "baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our entire lives" (Article 34). Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) tells us, "baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption" (Chapter 20). And, in light of the Westminster Catechism's teaching on improving our baptism, we find that the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God explains, "the inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to that very moment of time wherein it is administered" but rather "that the fruit and power thereof reacheth to the whole course of our life."

And so, the great Puritan divine William Perkins writes,
For although baptism be but once only administered, yet that once testifies that all men's sins past, present, and to come are washed away...Therefore baptim may be truly termed the sacrament of repentance and, as it were, a board to swim upon when a man shall fear the shipwreck of his soul. (The Work of William Perkins, ed. by Breward, 222)
The pattern here is Pauline in shape, the indicative preceding the imperative: we seek to live out what we already are in Christ by baptism and, thereby, in the words of Richard Baxter, "own" our baptismal identity, "personally renew it," and "give up" ourselves to God.

On this vigil of our Lord's resurrection, then, let us keep in mind both all the new brothers and sisters who we today welcome into Christ's church through baptism, as well as our own continuing identity as God's baptized people. As we next pass by the baptismal font, let us remember what it calls us to. Anglican theologian Kenneth Stevenson writes,
Every time we stroll past the font, physically or mentally, we are given a visual expression of the new beginning that Christ will always offer those who come to him. The new beginning is about repentance and renewal, not in abstract ways but in the concrete reality of our ordinary lives...[Those baptized] are going to go on and on renouncing the devil and professing faith in Christ in countless ways all through their lives. Baptism opens a door and keeps that door open. Or to revert to the death and resurrection of Christ, we can roll the stone against the door of the tomb, and shut the door against the world, but Christ keeps coming to burst out of the tomb and to make his entrance into our fearful lives. (The Mystery of Baptism 56)