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Detail from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran

At the start of every celebration of the Mass we hear a short passage from scripture called the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon. The word “antiphon” is a combination of two Greek words: anti and phone, as in “gramophone. “Anti-phone” literally means a sound in return to another sound; a kind-of call and response, and it is why the antiphons we have in the liturgy are supposed to be sung; they are responsorial texts given us by the Church in the Sacred Liturgy, to which we to make a response. That response is heard here at the Sung Mass on Sundays when we respond in a literal way by singing our response. We do something similar even when we say the Responsorial Psalm. But that outward, audible, and physical response to the text—one that often involves repeating the text over and over in order to affirm its meaning—is only part of the story. In fact, the response we are called to make to these antiphons, as with all liturgical texts, is not simply one made with our lips, but with our whole selves, with our lives. We can say that just as we sing our response, joining in our worship in the context of the liturgy, so also all that are is also called to resound with that response as a lived, real expression of what we believe and who we are in Jesus Christ. As the ancient saying goes, the law of prayer is the law belief; in other words, what we do in worship shows forth our faith.

This means that the texts given us by the Church in these antiphons in the liturgy are really very important. In fact that’s why we’ve invested so much time learning to sing them on Sundays and feasts, and it’s why our bulletin is given over to them rather than just to notices about flowers, coffee mornings, and second collections. Not that those things aren’t important, but that our life as a parish, as a community here at Holy Family, only really makes sense if we are first engaged in the worship of God, if we are people being changed by that worship in our day to day lives. We worship, we participate in the liturgical action of Jesus Christ in His Church, because we wish to become liturgical beings whose every thought, every word, and every deed, glorifies the one true God.

Well, with that in mind let’s look at today’s Entrance Antiphon as it is printed in the bulletin: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk.” This passage comes from the First Letter of Saint Peter, and it’s loaded with meaning. Having journeyed through the forty days and nights of Lent, at Easter we reach our Promised Land. You’ll remember that in the Old Testament the Promised Land is referred to by its Hebrew name, הארץ המובטחת (Ha’Aretz), the Land of Milk and Honey. It’s the place to which the Israelites travelled for forty years though the desert, having escaped slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea. We can easily see in that a parallel with our own Lenten march—our “campaign of Christian service” as we prayed in the Collect on Ash Wednesday. We have travelled not for forty years but forty days; we have escaped slavery not to Pharaoh, but to sin; we have passed through the Red Sea, not simply of the water of the oceans but of the baptismal font; we have reached our Promised Land, not just of the physical luxuries of milk and honey, but the Promised Land of the God’s kingdom, the place of “pure, spiritual milk” as that Entrance Antiphon has it. We heard all of this in the great Easter Vigil last Saturday night, just after hearing the account of that epic journey of the Israelites through the desert. After the reading from Exodus we prayed: “O God, who by the light of the New Testament have unlocked the meaning of wonders worked in former times, so that the Red Sea prefigures the sacred font and the nation derived from slavery prefigures the Christian people, grant, we pray, that all nations, obtaining the privilege of Israel by merit of faith, may be reborn by partaking of your Spirit.” So we can see how this pattern, established in the Old Testament in the Israelites, is given to us anew in Christ, and brought to fulfilment through Him.

This is particularly important this weekend when the ancient Church marked two events. Yesterday, on the Saturday in the Octave of Easter, the early Christians in Rome celebrated Sabbato in albis, literally the “Saturday in white” at their great Cathedral Church of Saint John on the Lateran hill. Together with their bishop, the Pope, they heard that passage that we recount again today in the Entrance Antiphon, from the First Letter of Saint Peter. And in the midst of their gathering were new faces; those baptised at the Easter Vigil; the new Christians, still clad in their white baptismal robes. 

Having celebrated their baptism and received the common robe of the baptised (the white garment we still see in Christening gowns used today) these new Christians were on this day to lay aside their baptismal garments—the “outward sign of their innocence”—and take up their place in the Christian community in a more every day way, in their normal garb. Listen to the version of the ancient Collect set in our missal for this: “O God, who by the abundance of your grace give increase to the peoples who believe in you, look with favour on those you have chosen and clothe with blessed immortality those reborn through the Sacrament of Baptism.” These baptismal robes were not worn again by the new Christians, until they were dressed in them for a final time before their burial at the end of their earthly lives; an eternal sign of eternal life.

This done, on the Sunday (i.e., at this Mass) these new Christians would participate in the worship of the Church, offering the Eucharistic sacrifice for the first time since their baptism. They would, for the first time, offer by themselves the sacrifice of their own lives in union with the offering of the bread and wine, with the sacrifice of Christ, together with all the members of the Church. Listen to how this is recalled in the Prayer over the Offerings, which we will hear again in a few moments: “Accept, O Lord, we pray, the oblations of your people and of those you have brought to new birth.”

This isn’t just a history lesson; it’s a reminder of what we are about as Christians at Easter. For all of us, newly baptised and those who have been Christians for years, Easter is a time of renewal. It’s why we’re sprinkled with water each Sunday in this season. We are all called to be “new” Christians; fresh, eager, and enthusiastic in our faith. And we are called to be true children of God, longing for “the pure, spiritual milk” of His new life for us. Easter is our Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey; it is the time of spiritual regeneration and renewal. Just as we faced the rigours of Lent, so in these days may we come to a new spiritual youthfulness in Christ, that faithful to our baptism in this life, we might come also to our true home, the Promised Land of heaven.