, ,

Baptismal Font, Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Chains, Cincinnati, OH

Baptismal Font, Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Chains, Cincinnati, OH

In the various calendars in use across the Latin Church this day is known variously as Low Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, the Second Sunday of Easter, Quasimodo Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, the Octave Day of Easter, and Dominica in albis or, to give its full name, Dominica in albis depositis. This latter title recalls the custom that today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, those who were baptized at the Paschal Vigil would lay aside for the first time the white robes with which they had been clothed during the sacred ceremonies last Sunday. As is the case now, the practice of the ancient Church was to clothe the newly baptized in a white garment, both as an outward sign of the Christian dignity, and as an admonition to carry the life of Christ always without stain. The gift of this physical robe furthermore acts as a token of the gift of everlasting life which, through the cleansing waters of the font, has been given.

This practice is recalled by a sermon of Saint Augustine of Hippo, formerly in the patristic reading at Mattins and now restored in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Addressing the newly-baptized, whom he calls infants not on account of their age but because they are the “new offspring of the Church”, the holy bishop instructs the neophytes with the words of Saint Paul: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13: 14). He continues, “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ has arisen from the dead, we too may walk in newness of life”.

This exhortation is heard most vividly by those who are recently incorporated into the mystical body of Christ which is the Church, but it is well for us seasoned Christians to take heed of its message. As the candidate for baptism is robed in the white linen cloth the ancient Roman liturgy instructs: “Receive this white garment which mayest thou carry without stain before the judgement seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest have life everlasting”. Thus we are charged to preserve within ourselves that life of grace if we wish to enjoy the fruits of the sacrifice which, at this altar of the spotless lamb, we come to recall.

The image of the baptismal garment is perhaps helpful in our examination of conscience in this regard. The robe is given as a sign of the life of Christ himself, free from every stain of sin; it covers us as the blood of Christ pours from his sacred body on the cross into the life-giving sacraments of his body the Church; it is ours for eternity, and our task to preserve it from corruption by sin, and so present it at the end to our heavenly Father as a sign of our fidelity. And yet we know, not least in the unforgiving brightness of the paschal season, that we do sully the life of grace imparted to us by the waters of the font. We do allow the ends of that white garment to drag along the ground and pick up  dirt from the world around us; we do allow the crisp linen of that perfect life to become creased and untidy through our lukewarmness and hardness of heart, and by our lack of care for the great gift of eternal life with which we have been entrusted. And so today, as we rejoice with those who are newly one in the life of Christ through baptism, we also recall our own sins and weaknesses and beseech the Lord, in his divine mercy, to restore us to the perfection of life which is his alone to give.

For this reason we may be consoled by the gift of the sacrament of penance, whose institution we recall in the gospel of this Mass (Jn 20: 23). Although we cannot be “rebaptized”, through the forgiving judgement of God the Father of mercies—by contrition and an integral confession—we can be restored to the brilliance of baptismal grace, and so be strengthened for our ongoing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is a great treasure; one which we should seek to embrace with frequency and regularity. But lest we become complacent and risk defiling this boundless gift of renewal and life, we must also acknowledge the need to grow in the spiritual life, and particularly in virtue, that our lives may become fertile ground for the Lord’s transformative grace to take effect. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that grace perfects nature; in our struggle to remain in the pure splendour of the way, the truth, and the life, which is Christ’s, we must also strive to conform ourselves to the pattern of his life, and cultivate in our actions the life he desires for us.

Once more the example of the newly-baptized extends to us all. Catechumens no more, those baptized at the Paschal Vigil now embark upon the final stage of their formal formation in the life of Christ. In what the Church calls their mystagogy, they are led through the mysteries of Easter to Pentecost, all the time conforming themselves to this new reality; putting into practice the disciplines and precepts imparted during the catechumenate. This is our task also. We must take the rigour and structure of the Lenten fast, and indeed the whole Christian life, and apply it—not now in penance, but as a sign that we have been transformed by that pilgrimage toward the promised land of Easter, and conformed to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ which we have seen laid before us. By this we will be renewed in the life of grace which was begun in us in baptism and once more be clothed in the spotless garments of Christ’s life. Let us pray God for the strength to make this desire true, and for the courage to live always in the light of our Paschal joy.