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April 03, 2013
Plunging into the baptismal waters of Easter
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

An Excerpt from “The Blow of Mercy”

“I still remember my first high dive,” he began.  “At some point, you have to try it.  You can’t keep practicing on the lower board. I had screwed up my courage and told myself I was diving into the arms of Jesus. It was a leap of faith with no support except trust. There was no turning back, midair. The dive was total and took over completely. The early Christians did it that way. I mean the catechumens. When they got baptized, they plunged into the pool and were immersed in the waters that washed them clean. They had dived into the blood of the Lamb and had come out the other side, new beings. There’s no way around the terror. You have to risk death by letting go if you’re going to be reborn. You need to be kept in the waters, screaming and struggling, before you rise to new life. You have to go under three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. As you sink, you may splash and flail. You may gag and choke and think you’re dying.  And in a way, you are. The prospect of drowning’s a fearful thing. Then suddenly, something happens. The dead weight drops off, and you find yourself coasting along, light and free. You breathe in the clean air, joyous at being alive. The grace of the Lord has buoyed you up.” (Joseph Roccasalvo, Outward Signs)

Taking the Plunge into Baptismal Waters

In describing his initial plunge into deep waters, the young diver compares his leap to the plunge into baptismal waters. It is the leap of faith, the thrill of living on “the razor’s edge.”

The diver has it right: terror of letting go, no human support, trust, subjective certainty and objective probability, the plunge and immersion, being buried in the water, more trust, the Trinitarian blessing, being borne up, coasting light and free, breathing in the clean air, joy at being alive in Christ.

Beginning the Leap

In early Christianity, it was exceedingly difficult for a candidate to enter the Church. Every real Christian was called to live as an ambassador for Christ, but the conditions for becoming a Christian were as rigid as entering a strict religious Order today. Every candidate was required to get a recommendation before entering the catechumenate. 

The early Church could not conceive of half-hearted Christians. When the few defections did come, it was the imminent prospect of martyrdom that had proved to be an insurmountable barrier; discipleship cost too much. Therefore, the Church prepared to be small in number rather than be unfaithful to her principles, to endanger them, or to water them down.

Length of Catechumenate

How long did it take for a candidate to become a full-fledged Christian? The trial period took three years. It was a sort of novitiate during which time candidates learned and assimilated the teaching of the Church through instruction on Sacred Scripture. They were also expected to know the Apostles’ Creed and give a summary of it to the bishop. Above all, it was their personal encounter with Christ that mattered.

The Final Stages before Baptism

The “final exam” for Baptism was the witness of their own lives, the most important aspect of their training.  For the last weeks of preparation, they were expected to intensify their fasting, prayer, vigils, and, if necessary, undergo exorcism.  As their immediate preparation, they observed a strict fast on Holy Saturday. Easter was the chosen feast for becoming a Christian because of the rich symbolism: Catechumens would be baptized and buried with Christ; then they would rise again with Christ (Rom 6:17). 

Rite of Adult Baptism

There were four steps in the rite of Baptism.

1. Renouncing Satan. The festive procession took place, a dramatic triumphal procession, a marching around like at some god’s feast, at which all the idols were carried along. There were two camps, one led by Satan’s army and the other by the army of Christ. The candidates dropped out of the devil’s camp and entered the camp of Christ’s army.

2. Oil of Exorcism. As the priest addressed those who were to be baptized, they renounced Satan, saying: “I renounce you, Satan, and all your pomps and all your works.” Then they were anointed with the oil of exorcism, letting the evil spirits depart from them.

3. Triple Immersion into baptismal water.

4. When the candidate came up, each was anointed by the priest with the oil of thanksgiving, saying: “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ. As they dried themselves, each  put on his or her white robe; and after this, they faced the Assembly as part of the Body of Christ.

Chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balsam, a symbol of adherence to Christ, the “Anointed One.” The fragrance, mixed with oil, soothes and comforts. As for infant baptism, from the very beginning, it was taken for granted that the children of Christian parents would be baptized in infancy.

Putting on Christ and the Theme of Beauty 

Of great significance was the robe. Donning the white outer robe symbolized putting on Christ, wearing Christ, as the scripture says: All those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:17).

In his many baptismal instructions, St. John Chrysostom (d 407) refers to the theme of beauty. New Christians have been anointed with the oil of gladness. They are to let their light shine out, for each of them is a new creation more brilliant than the rays of the sun.

The power of the baptismal garment cannot be overstated. The luster of this robe which time cannot touch and which age cannot dim. Prayer, above all, can guard continuously for us the luster of this special garment. If the neophytes do this well, they will be able to keep in full bloom the beauty of this spiritual robe, the baptismal robe.

The neophytes are like earthly stars, and they shine more brilliantly than those of heaven. They are the joy of the Church.   

Today’s Renewal of Baptismal Vows at Easter

At the Easter Vigil Liturgy and on Easter Sunday, Catholics renew their baptismal vows following those newly baptized. Renewal means embracing the person of Christ as the one and only Lord of the universe. God in Christ is not one of many gods, for this is Gnosticism.  Our baptismal renewal is not an once-in-a-lifetime event. It is an ongoing process begun as infants when our parents and godparents promised to walk with us toward freedom in Christ. It means renouncing the pomps of Satan.

Where are the pomps of Satan today? Our post-Christian age is more exposed to subtle sins than at a less sophisticated time. We are adept at rationalizing our excuses and evasions. It is easy to defend error. Dull consciences can make error plausible and can make vice look like virtue. The devil is a liar and lures us into various ways:

Materialism denies the existence of the soul. Men and women are nothing more than a higher species of the animal kingdom.

Consumerism dictates that luxuries are necessities. I must have them, and now.

Relativism holds that morality varies according to differences in cultural and attitudes. There is no universal and objective truth to guide one’s attitude and behavior. Morality is a subjective thing.

Secular humanism excludes or denies the existence any religious values. It focuses exclusively on the finite world. Do good in the here and now, and without God, because there is no tomorrow.

Pelagianism is basically self-sufficiency. I am in control of my life.

For the sophisticated aesthetes, the beauty of art is their god. They forget that all beauty and all art ultimately derived from and point to the divine artist. When the tragedy of 9/11 exploded before us, religious people turned to prayer for comfort in the face of mindless tragedy. Others dealt with the pain by turning to music.

Unless a Man Be Born Again . . .

Christ told Nicodemus that his followers must be born again of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:3). When we put on Christ as our robe, we shine forth beauty. When we do not, we mask ourselves with costumes. For when we are not Christ, we are not truly ourselves.

Easter reminds us that Christ did not merely return to life; he is life itself. He lives in the present in the everlasting today. Easter men and women wear their baptismal robes and proclaim “Alleluia” from head to toe. Catholicism then is not a bloodless faith that is overcome by the culture but the energizer, catalyst, and driver of the culture. Catholicism evangelizes the commonplace.
“Brothers and sisters: Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).

Isn’t this what diver was saying?

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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