This topic came up in a conversation with some friends a while back. One friend suggested that it didn’t really make sense to place baptisms before the Easter proclamation at the Easter Vigil since, liturgically speaking, Christ wasn’t yet risen (the rubric on p. 295 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes it optional to administer baptism after the Easter Gospel). Here was my response. The reasoning is, I hope, a demonstration of what I tried to argue in yesterday’s post: “Liturgy doesn’t ‘mean’ anything: It is something.”
I write all this after coming to my own position very slowly. I realized one day how many things I did as a priest because I liked them without having thought them through and without trying to understand the “why” behind my actions. And learning “why” is more challenging than I initially thought.
Liturgical actions almost never “mean” one thing, and the liturgy is also never a reenactment of something. The Eucharist isn’t simply a sacrament or a memorial of the Last Supper; it is a sacrament of the mystery of Jesus Christ that comes to its apex in the Paschal Mystery, where we see the most perfect worship ever offered to the Father in Jesus himself and into which Jesus allows us to join him liturgically and sacramentally.
The Triduum is especially challenging in this respect, because it is the most “literal” reenactment that we undertake, at least in terms of reenacting a chronology. But we should remember that we do many things that don’t fit the chronology of Jesus’s life, such as having Communion on Good Friday.
So too at the Easter Vigil. The idea that “liturgically” Christ isn’t risen until the Easter proclamation would also make so much of what we do before that point in the vigil’s liturgy wrong, or at least odd. Even the conclusion to the collect “O God of unchangeable power” would be odd: how can Jesus be bringing all things to perfection if he’s still not risen? So too proclaiming “the light of Christ” thrice about the un-resurrected Christ.
Part of the logic of the traditional order of the vigil — new fire and Exsultet; readings; baptism; first Easter Eucharist — is the fundamental liturgical principle that liturgical rites don’t mean X or Y. Rather, liturgical rites disclose the fundamental mystery of Christ that had been hidden for ages and is now revealed in these last days. Particular aspects of liturgical rites usually disclose certain aspects of that mystery in a unique way. So in this instance, I think that having baptisms before the Easter proclamation is meant to show us how the mystery of Christ is applied to individuals.
We see the Paschal Mystery sacramentally applied to the bodies of individual Christians in the initiation rites. And it seems fitting that this happens in the dark. The Vigil readings give us a number of ways through which to “read” the Paschal Mystery, that is, backward and typologically through and in the Old Testament. Setting baptisms to follow directly on the vigil lessons “speaks” a number of true and critical things:
- What God does in baptism is in direct continuity with what God has always done: saved his people by acting through created things.
- How God saved through water is damn scary (The Flood story and the Red Sea story anyone? Lots of killing there).
- Baptism is rather like God asking a human father if he is willing to allow his son to die for the sake of God.
- Even in the light of the Resurrection, the whole glory of salvation is still seen as though through a glass dimly.
Thus for baptisms to take place in the semi-darkness speaks something deeply true, something that resonates with the way we humans understand and yet are also not fully able to comprehend the breadth, depth, and height of the love of God and the glory to be revealed.
When neophytes are shown to the people, newly died and risen, wet and smelling of the fragrance of Christ and of his Spirit, the people are given a living icon of the mystery we will soon speak with our lips, and see with our eyes, in all the symbolic ways we try to speak of the Resurrection.
Even the procession to the font after the readings “speaks” of a pilgrim journey of God’s people: we move straight from reading about such a journey in the Old Testament to “doing” it liturgically.
And after the neophytes are baptized, they immediately process closer to the altar, an act that again “speaks” this truth. Even in the light we still see a little darkly; and so to watch a person sacramentally die and be raised with Christ through the dim haze of candlelight seems, Thomistically speaking, the most fitting manner in which to conduct these mysteries.
The mystery is only heightened as the people are then sprinkled with this same baptismal water (maybe even as the litany of the saints is being sung) until the procession returns to the altar and the proclamation is heard: “Death is trampled down and the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered. The Lord is risen indeed.”
Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver is teaching fellow in liturgics at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a doctoral student at Marquette University. He also assists at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee. His other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image is “Easter Vigil” (2009) by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. It is licensed under Creative Commons.