On Holy Saturday night and throughout the Easter season, we stand as priests on the earth near our baptismal fonts and invite people to renew their faith. We throw our voices across the rafters, inviting people to raise the roof in response to walking away from our old lives of sin and insecurity. The questions we ask at this moment in the Eucharist may seem obscure and even foreign to many of our people. Some people are waiting to respond to the renewal of love and to the connection with the Holy Spirit. Many people are not sure to what the questions refer, as they do not believe in the Holy Spirit given to them in their own baptism. For some it is rote prayer; for others it is a fresh moment of renewal, love and purpose. The responses of our people often rise from their fragile hearts and uncertain voices.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and devotions have led us to this moment. This is the renewed ground upon which we all stand. Our adults preparing for baptism have spent many months coming to terms with the questions posed at baptism.
Many of our people struggling with job loss, ill children and loveless marriages, infidelities and grief, stand with us to renew the essence of our belonging within Christianity and the Church. Many feel God has broken his promises toward us as we are plagued with gun violence, our children shooting children. They feel lost and alone and wonder why God is not doing more in our world to heal us, to bring about peace and consolation for us who express our fidelity on this holy night.
Some people feel betrayed by any promise the Church makes toward others living in long-term poverty, food insufficiency or human trafficking. In this moment of renewing our baptismal promises, some people have grown weary that our communities have grown ignorant of the essence of faith, and still others believe that the Second Vatican Council has watered-down the essence of what we believe as baptized Christians and as Catholics.
In this moment in the Eucharist, I often feel alone even when I am a proud parent of those born again in baptism. I stand at our baptismal font of eternal life and I am not always sure if anyone is standing with me. Even though these baptismal waters birth the Church, I am not always feeling the fidelity of faith, even from my own life as a priest. The ground upon which I stand seems to shift and waver. I have moved across the country 10 times in my years as a priest, and sometimes I do not understand my real foundation in faith. My own loneliness forms my voice in this ritual moment of questioning and renewal.
We build our Church on water — such a slippery presumption that it will not dry up. We build on a precarious foundation, it seems, in which unity comes from earthly water mixed with our slippery faith and uncertainties. At this moment of liturgical prayer, I reach into the depth of my own soul to rouse my unexpressed faith, my quandaries about the Church and my questions about how our people will survive their circumstances. This is the moment that I, too, must learn to believe in the questions that will come out of my mouth and heart in this ritual moment.
On Holy Saturday night, the priest addresses the people on the new ground of Christ’s resurrection: “We have been buried with Christ in baptism, so that we may walk with him in newness of life.” I want to kiss this new ground during this moment and in these words of invitation, because I am not always sure I see the path of new life for my own life and the Church. This invitation wells up within my heart. I still carry to the baptismal font questions about how this new path may become real for our people on journeys of drug addiction, infidelities and self-importance.
This is the new path that I pray turns us away from all evil in the questions that follow. “Do you renounce sin, so as to live in the freedom of the children of God?” I understand that turning from evil takes a lifetime for us to manifest in daily life. The miracle of these questions arises from the love of God alone. I am not in charge of how people are converted, changed or invited to move away from the devil. I cannot control the process of how this water will fall on the assembly’s bodies and souls when it is sprinkled in ritual. I do know that under the water that falls upon our heads, we all long to discover a new way of belonging to God and the Church.
One of the greatest longings of the human heart is to belong. This is the essence of this ritual moment of blessing water and sprinkling baptized people in the assembly. We need to invite our people into the depth not only of the meaning of baptismal water but also into a deeper meaning of their response to these questions posed to them. “I do” is not a throwaway line or just a ritual gesture to get us moving within this long liturgy.
“I do” is a response that erupts from the congregation from the wellspring of deep commitment. Many of our people do not feel they belong within the Church. Many others hesitate to respond to such liturgical questions because they are not sure that their faith is strong enough to fully respond with assurance and belonging. Still others do not believe that their voice matters within the Church. Some believe that they are not worthy to receive the forgiveness and mercy that comes from renewing our faith.
Our response takes us many years to express with a full and loud voice during the Easter Vigil. I usually invite people at this moment within the liturgy to raise the rafters and rattle the windows of the church with their response. If we do not believe, we must shout it out anyway. If we are hesitant, then we shout even louder. If we are afraid, then from our fear we shout out the response with vigor. If we do not fully believe in the mystery of Jesus and how it is lived within the Church, we give the response full voice because we never know how God will receive our doubts, our hesitations and fears on this Easter night. If we can get over these hurdles, then our shouting out of these affirmations of faith within the Church encourage us to grow in our awareness that we belong in such a mystery on Easter.
Our common liturgical response to the questions of renouncing evil and believing in the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Church enables us all to stand on common ground on Easter. We are sure-footed on faith. We stand with one another united in faith. As priests, we must allow this moment of our people’s faith to soak into our own souls. Baptism is common ground for justice, love and leadership. Baptism gives way to unity and to learning how to live our faith within the tragedies and grind of daily life. Our baptismal renewal becomes a genuine miracle on Easter.
What Comes Next
After the choruses of “I do,” we invite the assembly to encounter the water of their own second birth. At the Easter Vigil, I usually invite people to approach the baptismal font to encounter, splash up and mark their own bodies with the Sign of the Cross. On Easter, we need to approach the baptismal font and realize our own belonging and faith. The symbol of water needs to be encountered with joy. This encounter with water on our own bodies opens us to a deeper realization that baptism is not a static or pious notion of faith, and we are not unreceptive bystanders of the sacrament.
I also invite people to the font because the sprinkling rite can be perceived as a violent gesture when the priest tosses water over the assembly. People cringe when water is tossed in their faces. On Easter night, the renewal of our baptismal promises should not be associated with violence or perceived as something that is done to members of the assembly without their consent. Baptismal renewal is an adult expression of faith, not a passive one. Baptismal renewal is not an aggressive gesture but rises up from mature expressions of how to live the mystery of Jesus Christ within our world. The sprinkling rite should not be abusive or condescending, because baptism is our common ground, the rich hope that we are united within the Church with a vision of peace, healing and justice for every member of our assembly.
The solid ground of baptism is maturity, commitment and a full-voice response to Christ Jesus. Baptismal renewal on Easter opens us to living in our world with integrity and compassion. Baptism forms adult leaders and creates a common ground for hope, love and tenderness. We honor people who express with adult enthusiasm the gift of faith. We also honor baptism in Christ Jesus because the sacrament is lived in everyday life with purpose, joy and integrity by our parishioners and believers. Baptism is not for the highfalutin parishioner, the privileged believer or just for people with cultural power and influence. Baptism invites us all to be free from sin and to enter into the mystery of our redemptive Church. The renewal of baptismal promises on Easter gives way for the potential for real conversion and change in every aspect of our world.
FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He hosts “On the Margins,” a weekly radio Scripture commentary on Mater Dei Radio in Portland, Oregon.