April 24, 2011
Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes
We have had forty days to prepare for this: either on Holy Saturday evening at the vigil or at Mass on Easter morning we will be asked to make our baptismal vows once again. At the beginning of our communal retreat, on Ash Wednesday, I suggested the challenge and importance of the questions that we are asked today. Now at the conclusion of Lent I think we should look at the answers we give. Or, rather, the answer, since all the answers are the same: “I do.”
This answer is certainly not a simple acceptance: “Yes, I can go along with believing that.” Nor is it a claim to have achieved faith: “Having prayed and thought about this throughout Lent, I have arrived at the point where I can confirm these beliefs.” What does the repeated response, “I do,” mean? I suggest that we might do well to look at another occasion when traditionally people have been publicly asked a question before the community of believers and have responded in the same words: “I do.” The marriage vow is not a statement about where a person stands but rather where he or she intends to go. At a marriage the question addressed to the couple is not about how they regard one another at that moment but rather what their intentions are from that time forward. Marriage vows are about the months and years and decades after the vows are made, and so are baptismal vows.
Fifteen centuries ago Saint Augustine made a distinction between three Latin phrases that might initially seem to mean much the same thing—credo Deum, credo Deo, and credo in Deum. We might translate all three as “I believe in God.” In fact, however, Augustine noted that they mean quite different things. Credo Deum means that I accept the reality of God as a fact. “Having examined the evidence and considered the possibilities I have come to the conclusion that God exists.” Credo Deo affirms that I believe something because of God. I believe that something is true because God has revealed it. The third phrase, Credo in Deum, might be most accurately if, in English, puzzlingly translated as “I believe into God.” It is not about what we believe or why we believe; it is a commitment to believing. It is a statement of trust and loyalty. We still catch some of this in English when one person tells another, “I believe in you.” This is certainly not a statement that I acknowledge that you exist or that I accept something as true because you tell me it is so. Rather, it is a way of saying that I trust you, I commit myself to you, I am relying on you. Like this third phrase, the “I do” of the baptismal vows and the “I do” of the marriage vows are personal pledges, promises of fidelity, acts of trust.
So when I say my “I do” this Easter, I am not simply saying that I accept the gospel as true or that I recognize it as God’s self-revelation. I shall be saying that I will continue to give whatever I am and have and can do in trust and hope to the Mystery that we name Father and Son and Spirit. I shall be stating that I shall continue the commitment begun when my Godparents affirmed these vows in my name so long ago. I shall say this knowing that I will need to say it again, perhaps more truthfully, next Easter and every Easter, just as married couples renew their marriage vows with greater and greater awareness of and commitment to all that they have learned those vows mean. I shall reaffirm my vows, therefore, with fear and hesitation and hope and trust and, most of all, with gratitude and joy—as I pray you will. Happy Easter!