Last Saturday evening, in churches across the world, Christians watched and waited in solemn vigil as, once more, the story of salvation was laid before us in the words of sacred scripture. For many of us, it was the culmination of a pilgrimage through the season of Lent: a time in which we are called to repentance for our sins, to return to the Lord who, by his passion, death, and resurrection, has opened to us new life. For others, it was the culmination of a much greater pilgrimage. At the Paschal Vigil, the Church, having retold the narrative by which she came to be, becomes new again in Christ. The new fire is blessed, the new light of the Paschal Candle is honoured with the great love song of the Exsultet, the presence of Christ is restored to the tabernacle after the days of the Sacred Triduum: all of this points to the utter difference that is made for us in our life in Christ, as a result of that first Easter. Thus it is fitting that this is also the time when the Church creates new Christians. With the blessing of the font, the Paschal Candle is plunged three times into the waters to symbolize the fecundity of this womb of the Church, and those who have been preparing for Holy Baptism are initiated into the life of Christ through the solemn and irreversible gift of baptism, that opens for the individual the gift of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
The joy of the Church in receiving these new members is unparalleled. The purpose of the sacrifice of Christ is the salvation of our souls, and so to recognize that being made truly manifest in the baptism of new Christians is the cause of great jubilation. In fact, the Church’s joy is so great at this that she celebrates for eight days. The past week has not simply been the start of the general season of Easter, but a reliving each day of Easter itself. Today, the Octave Day of Easter, we see that in the singing once more of the great Sequence Victimæ paschali laudes. And if today is still, in that mystical sense, Easter Sunday, then we can understand why it is known as Dominica in albis or, strictly speaking, Dominica in albis depositis: the Sunday of the taking-off of the white robes given to the new Christians at their baptism.
Those baptized at the Paschal Vigil were clad in white garments to symbolize the brilliant purity of their new life in Christ, the stain of original sin having been washed away in the flood of baptismal waters. We recall this in the tradition of babies wearing white for their baptism, but also in the alb worn by the priest under all his other vestments: a sign that he is, first and foremost, a member of the mystical body of Christ through the baptism he shares with each one of us. At the conclusion of this extended celebration of Easter, those neophytes—the newly baptized—would finally remove their baptismal robes and begin to live what they symbolized.
To help with this, the early church in Rome kept this past week as a time of festivity. Business transactions were suspended, and each day the Christian faithful would gather with the bishop in one of the major churches of the city. The texts of the Mass this past week have all been aimed at the new Christians: “The Lord has led you into a land flowing with milk and honey,” we heard on Monday. “He gave them the water of wisdom to drink,” on Tuesday. “Receive the kingdom prepared for you,” on Wednesday. And so on and so forth. And even the churches which they visited were a sign of this: the churches of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, of Saint Laurence the patron of Rome, of the Twelve Holy Apostles, of Saint Mary of the Martyrs (known commonly as the Pantheon), the Cathedral Church of Rome, Saint John Lateran, and finally today the church of Saint Pancras: a fourteen year old martyr whose young age points to the youthfulness given to all those baptized into new life in Christ.
This tradition, of which we are inheritors and guardians, is not a dead letter or historical nicety, but a reminder to each of us of the importance of our baptism. More than simply a welcoming rite or naming ceremony, baptism is the “basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213). As we were plunged into the waters of the sacred font we went down into the tomb of Christ, to be reborn as new persons in his eternal life. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem put it: “When you went down into the water, it was like night and you could see nothing but when you came up again it was like finding yourself in the day. That one moment was your death and your birth; that saving water was your grave and your mother.”
It is through that baptism that we come to experience God’s infinite mercy in the sacraments, and particularly the Sacrament of Penance. The baptismal garment of our soul, creased by the wrinkles of venial sin and stained and torn by mortal sin, is only restored to its original state by Christ: by returning to the source of that initial grace, and seeking reconciliation with his life and person. As Saint Ambrose puts it, there are two conversions: the water of baptism and the water of tears. We cannot be re-baptized, but we can be restored to that grace once more through our contrition and sorrow, and through “God the Father of mercies.” As our Holy Father has said, “Confession is, in fact, like a ‘second baptism’ that refers back always to the first to strengthen and renew it.”
May the example of the newly baptized encourage us in the recovery of what we have lost. May we return to Christ, who sacrificed himself upon the altar of the cross, that we might share his risen life. And may that life, which flowed from his side to flood the Church and the world with his love, fill us anew, that entirely consumed by him, we may come to the Paschal feast of the kingdom of his Eternal Father and, through baptism, ours.