Monday, February 23, 2009

Lent, Baptism, and the Flood

The season of Lent is nearly upon us. I strongly recommend that you take the time to read the Holy Father's Lenten message.

Lent is meant to prepare us (and those catechumens and candidates who are seeking to enter into full communion with the Church) "to celebrate the Paschal mystery" (Paschale Solemnitatis 6), that turning point in salvation history when the Lord of all creation willingly gave his life for us on the cross, and was resurrected in glory after "resting on the Sabbath". It is "a time of purification and enlightenment" (PS 7), not only for the catechumens but for all the faithful as well.

Because "the time of Lent preserves its penitential character" (Paenitemini II, 1), "the virtue and practice of penance form a necessary part of the preparation for Easter" (PS 14). Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the liturgy Mediator Dei, wrote that during Lent, "our Holy Mother the Church over and over again strives to make each of us seriously consider our misery, so that we may be urged to a practical emendation of our lives, detest our sins heartily and expiate them by prayer and penance. For constant prayer and penance done for past sins obtain for us divine help, without which every work of ours is useless and unavailing." (MD 157)

The Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, had this to say of the renewal of this most important liturgical season:
109. The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. Hence:
a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good.

b) The same is to apply to the penitential elements. As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners.
110. During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful... .

Nevertheless, let the Paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind.
The Second Reading from the First Sunday of Lent (Year B) is 1 Peter 3:18-22, in which the Prince of the Apostles relates the waters of baptism to the waters of the flood. Baptism, one of the foundational themes of Lent, is a major part of the Easter Vigil celebration. The Easter Vigil includes a lengthy prayer over the water to be used for baptism. Part of this prayer speaks of the waters of the flood:

1962 Missal2002 Missal
Deus, qui
nocentis mundi crimina per aquas abluens,
regenerationis speciem
in ipsa diluvii effusione signasti:
ut, unius eiusdemque elementi mysterio,
et finis vitiis, et origo
Deus, qui

regenerationis speciem
in ipsa diluvii effusione signasti,
ut unius eiusdemque elementi mysterio
et finis vitiis et origo

The texts of the prayer in the 1962 Missal (Extraordinary Form) and the 2002 Missal (Ordinary Form) are almost identical. The translation of this part of the prayer is:
O God, Who
[ by water washed away the crimes of the guilty world, and ]
by the pouring out of the deluge gave
a figure of regeneration,
that of one and the same element might be, by a mystery,
an end to vices and a beginning of [ or: to ] virtues!
(Translation note: virtutibus means "to virtues", whereas virtutum means "of virtues".)

This prayer of the Easter Vigil glorifies God by remembering His many deeds wrought through water. The prayer (in both forms) calls to mind:
  1. the waters "in the beginning" over which His Spirit moved,
  2. the waters of the Flood through which Noah and his family were saved,
  3. the waters of the Red Sea which destroyed Pharoah's army and through which the Israelites were delivered,
  4. the waters of the Jordan in which our Lord was baptized,
  5. the water and blood which poured forth from the side of our crucified Lord,
  6. and the water in which our Lord commands us to be baptized.
The Extraordinary Form also recalls:
  1. the four rivers flowing out of Eden,
  2. the water from the rock in Exodus,
  3. the water-made-wine at Cana,
  4. and the waters upon which the Lord walked.
(Where else do you recall Christ using water as a sign?)

It is no wonder, then, that the Lord God chose water as the means by which we enter the covenant of Christ. God's plan to incorporate the material in His work of spiritual redemption is proper to our nature, being both flesh and spirit. The God Who is the "maker ... of all things, visible and invisible" (Nicene Creed) has reconciled and united both the visible (the physical) and the invisible (the spiritual) in the Church and her sacraments, just as His only-begotten Son reconciled and united Jew and Gentile in himself.

As we prepare to take up the cross of Lent so as to worthily celebrate the mystery of salvation at Easter, let us call to mind our baptism, and recommit ourselves to the life we were configured to when we "put on Christ" (Gal 3:27) in that wondrous "washing of water with the word" (Eph 5:26), the "washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).

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