April 17, 2011
Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes
Lent, the church’s communal retreat in preparation for renewing our baptismal vows, comes to its climax with Holy Week. In order to enter into this commemoration and celebration of the Lord’s passing over from life to death to deathless life, a Passover which we share with him in baptism and eucharist, there is a question which needs to be asked: why do baptismal vows require renewal? Isn’t baptism a once-and-for-all event? Why must we renew it year after year? I suggest two points to consider.
The first finds expression in what I regard as an especially moving image in our liturgy. Some of the palm blessed on the last Sunday before Easter is put aside until the next year. It dries out and becomes more and more brittle. Then just before Lent begins the following year the old palm is burned and its ashes are blessed and distributed on Ash Wednesday. This year’s palm becomes next year’s ashes. That is a very good image for my experience (and perhaps yours?). When I renew my baptismal commitment each year at Easter I determine to live my vocation as a follower of the risen Lord more fully and profoundly and devotedly than I have before. But every year I reluctantly realize that in countless ways I failed. A year form now I shall need the opportunity to consider where I have grown, where I have failed and whether I am prepared to try again and so whether I will renew my baptismal promises. The palm of this weekend will have turned to ashes and I will need Lent again.
Knowing that does not make renewing my vows next Sunday hypocritical. I will pledge the baptismal promises with both the sincere hope and resolve to live them as fully as possible and the realistic recognition that I will need to do so again next Easter and the following year and the year after that and on and on. The recognition of this is itself part of the first baptismal affirmation that we are invited to make next week, which I described in the reflection for Ash Wednesday as “Do you affirm that God exists and that you are not God?”
Renewing, however, does not mean starting over. There is another image which I think balances that of this year’s palm becoming next year’s ashes. Tertullian, the earliest Christian author writing in Latin whose work we still have, wrote at the end of the second or beginning of the third century a book on Baptism. In its opening he invoked the symbol of Christ as the fish (from the Greek word for “fish,” ichthus, which can be an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior”). If Christ is the great fish, he wrote, then we Christians are little fish. From this odd image he draws an extraordinary conclusion: little fish are born in water, and they must stay in the water throughout their lives; if they ever leave the water, they will die. We Christians have come into new life in the water of Baptism and we must never get out of that water. To expand on Tertullian’s point, I suggest that we are always being baptized. Baptism is not something done to me when I was an infant, the consequences of which I am still trying to understand all these years later. I am still being baptized day after day, year after year. Like Tertullian’s little fish, I cannot leave the font for I will die out of the water. Baptism is not an event; it is a vocation. Just as a couple who have lived their marriage vows well are more truly married on their tenth, twentieth or fiftieth anniversary than they were on their wedding day, so I am more baptized now (by some six decades) than I was on that Sunday afternoon when the water was poured on my forehead. In fact, we affirm this in many liturgical forms and familiar practices, from the ritual of sprinkling the congregation with water at the start of solemn celebrations of Mass to blessing ourselves with holy water on entering and leaving a church.
If this is so, our renewal of baptismal promises next week is not a starting-over; it is the marking of a stage in a lifelong process. I am a year more truly baptized than I was last Easter and so I can reaffirm my vows. Next Easter I will (I hope) be a year more truly baptized than I am now and so will need to reaffirm those vows again. Last year’s palm has turned to ashes, reminding me of my need to grow, but I have lived another year in the water of Baptism and so am still able to grow. I think I am almost ready to face the vows again.
Alumni Responses to Palm Sunday's Reflection
Fran Zubryd, M.Ed.’87 — Yes. I especially realized just how far away my prayer had gotten from truly wanting God's will for things to be on earth as it is in heaven. I started wanting all sorts of “good” things but not purely “His Will.” Until I realized I was far away from it. Today I renewed my “vows” and my prayer life “Thy Will be Done” and immediately I was once again in the peaceful presence of my heavenly Father!