MY SHEEP HEAR MY VOICE AND I KNOW THEM. THEY FOLLOW ME AND I GIVE THEM ETERNAL LIFE. (John 10: 28). As Lent draw closer to the celebration of the Paschal Vigil, the liturgy keeps more prominently before our attention the gift of eternal life bestowed on us through baptism. Lent serves as a special period of preparation for that sacrament still today as it has done for many centuries. The choice of Gospel texts beginning last Sunday is determined by reference to the enlightenment that the catechumens receive through the gift of grace that is received by those baptized at the Easter Vigil. Such texts as speak of Jesus bestowing sight to the man born blind, healing the cripple at the water-side, and the eternal life given to those who recognize the Lord's voice all have as their implied theme, the reception of baptism at the Easter Vigil. This theme, in fact, contributes to the unity and sense of climax that characterizes the liturgical unfolding of the Lenten season.
To be sure, the more prominent topic that presents itself to us in the daily celebrations of Lent is the coming passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, in all the fulness of their redeeming graces. The Gospel texts of this season call our attention to the fact that the sacrament of baptism one of the chief channels of the graces won for us by these mysteries of the Lord Jesus. Its reception is fundamental and essential to our continuing life in the Spirit as well as for the original restoration of God's favor to us upon receiving this sacrament. The risen Christ himself made this clear when he commissioned his apostles to go forth from Jerusalem to the whole world, not only to preach the Gospel but also to baptize. His words are categorical in their affirmation of the necessity of this sacrament: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16)."
In our times when the majority of Catholics are baptized as infants, we might readily conceive that it is something of an anachronism to insist on the role of the Lenten Season as a preparation for that sacrament. On the contrary, the texts of the liturgy at this time remain highly pertinent to our spiritual life today as much as they ever did, though their role has shifted for most of us in that they serve rather to remind us of the continuing effects of baptism than to prepare us to receive it. It was at baptism that we first received the gift of the Holy Spirit and were made members of the Body of Christ, his Church. This same grace enables us actively to respond to the opportunities that arise as we develop in the use of our human faculties. All the helps of grace received subsequently in a very real manner flow from this initial bestowal of the Spirit by whose presence within us we become more fully united with the Lord and more completely integral in our possession of his life, so that we are made more worthy to be his children in the new creation. St. Paul speaks of the continuing influences of this sacrament in the life of every Christian: "Are you ignorant of the fact that as many of us as are baptized in Christ are baptized into his death (Romans 6: 3)." This fact serves him as an argument for the need to avoid sin in all its forms since, as he goes on to add, "having been buried with him through baptism into death, ... thus we might life in newness of life." The whole of our life in Christ shares in the freshness of his resurrection because the effects of baptism remain active throughout our days on earth and beyond. The gifts of this mystery are eternal, they transcend time.
There are additional reasons for adverting to the baptismal references of the liturgy in Lent. Our Catholic faith remains missionary in character so that we have the obligation to be concerned that others who do not as yet belong to the Church receive the grace of baptism. Every member of the Church receives the faith as a trust to be shared with others, not buried in the field of the soul to remain hidden within. Knowledge of the truth carries with it the duty of spreading its light. "Nor do they light a lamp that it might be placed under a basket, but upon a lamp stand that it might shine for all those in the house (Matthew 5: 15)", Jesus taught. That this remains intrinsic to the faith today, even in these ecumenical times, has been reaffirmed in recent times by the Vatican II Council, and subsequently by Roman authorities and the Pope himself.
A program for instruction of adult candidates for baptism, referred to as the RCIA, (Rite of Christian Initiation) has been promulgated and put into effect for some time now. There are some 20, 000 Catholic parishes in the USA today; 3/4ths of them have active RCIA programs. The number of participants who are catechized in these parish groups has been growing steadily each year, though the fact has not received much publicity even within the Church.
Fr. Richard Neuhaus recently decided the time has come to call attention to the results of this phenomenon (cf. First Things April 2001, p. 63).The number of adult baptisms in this country in the year 2000 was higher than it has ever been. Though the press has not taken note of this fact, there were 170,000 adults who joined the Catholic Church last year, the large majority, though not all, having been prepared for this step by participation in the RCIA. Approximately half of them entered the Church through the reception of baptism (83, 157); the remaining 87,799 had already been validly baptized in one of the other Christian bodies. The total number of adults joining the Catholic communion remains fewer, to be sure, than the number of infants baptized, which, in the same time span, amounted to more than 1,000,000. However, that so many tens of thousands of adults have chosen to join the Roman Church after carefully studying her teachings is certainly a significant indication that the Gospel message as handed on by the Catholic Church remain a credible and even compelling program of life for modern American men and women. The Catholic Church now numbers 62,391,484 members in this country making it the largest Christian body in the land.
We are all aware that it is not numbers alone that determine the health of the Church and her fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that there are many reasons to be concerned for the well being of our Catholic communion. Nonetheless, these figures are surely highly indicative that her message remains effectual for many persons today in the country most affected by the various currents of thought and attitude that threaten basic Christian values.
Let us examine in some detail some of the immediate effects of the grace of baptism that we might the better cultivate them in our spiritual life. For one thing, it bestows life in Christ which has been conceived from earliest times as membership in his Mystical Body and as an enlightenment of the consciousness of the individual regarding divine matters. In fact, the common name for baptism in the early Greek speaking Church was Enlightenment. Christ had spoken of himself, according to St. John's account, as the Light of the world. Obviously, he did not mean to imply he was the material light as if he were taking the place of the sun. He is the light of the mind and of the spirit. To know him is to know the truth; to accept him in faith and with love is to possess the light of life, that is the living truth that sets us free. The emphasis on Lent as a time for enhancing our spiritual life through greater participation in the mystery of Christ conceived as the source of the light of truth that reflects the glory of the Father is provided already from the Second Sunday of this season when the Transfiguration is made the subject of the liturgical proclamation. Thus early in this season our attention is focused on the glorified Christ in whose light our spirit is bathed in anticipation of the manifestation of his glory in the resurrection from the dead. The theme of light that reveals the true nature of the Lord Jesus as the Beloved Son of the eternal Father whose glory he shares in the very constitution of his person, is presented to us in dramatic form in this season so that we might contemplate him in his glory and thus understand and profit from his passion more fully in the final days of this season. Awareness that he who suffered for us is truly divine and possessed in his person all the glory and beauty and power of God is a fruit of the contemplation of the light of Tabor. To enlighten us by this inner vison of the glory of God is the role of the repeated return to the theme of the light of Christ especially at the Lenten season, year after year. Already in the three hundreds St. John Chrysostom, witnessed to this manner of viewing the Christian life. In his preaching as a priest in Antioch he refers to the catechumens as "those who are to be enlightened." In the course of his pre-baptismal instructions he refers to the fact that those who are to be baptized will be known as "the newly-enlightened(neophytoi)" and urges them to deserve this enviable title, not just for a few days, but throughout their lives.
See how the grace of the Spirit had refashioned the soul of Paul and transformed the cast of his mind... Imitate him, I exhort you, and you will be able to deserve the title, "the newly enlightened" not just for two or three days, or ten or twenty only, but for ten, twenty or thirty years, even throughout your life, I might say. For if we exert ourselves to make this light within us, that is to say, the grace of the Spirit, more bright in its shining through the practice of good works so that it becomes inextinguishable, we shall enjoy this title through the whole of this present time (Huit Catéchèses Baptismales, S. C. 50 Paris 1957 Homilie V.19, 20, p.210)."
The hesychast monks in the Byzantine tradition took this view of Baptism as a source of unending light very seriously indeed, and made the light of Christ, especially as revealed on Tabor, the central mystery of their contemplations. St. Symeon the New Theologian, writing around the year 1,000 A.D., expressed the basic conviction fundamental to this way of prayer. "God is light, and contemplation is like this light." He described the experience of God accordingly as immersion in the interior light that is God Himself. "O my father, when this light came to me, the space of my cell was lifted away, and the world also, and it seemed to me I was left alone in this light, and I did not know, my father, where my body was, or whether I was still in the cell....I knew only that I was wrapped around in a nameless joy, and love and immense desire were within me... An the light said Yes, I am God who became man for your sake, and I have made you, and I shall make you into a god.' (cited in Robert Payne, "The Fathers of the Eastern Church", New York 1957, 271) Gregory Palamas, the 14th century theologian defender of hesychast spirituality, frequently repeats in his works such terms as light, beauty, splendor and glory which set a joyous tone to his writings on the contemplative life. He represents a thousand year tradition going back to Evagrius Ponticus, when he considers man in his very constitution as being essentially light.
Man, being himself a light, he holds up his light to see the Light, and looking into himself, he looks upon the Light, and if he looks further, then also he sees the Light, and always he sees by virtue of the Light, and therefore there is communion and all is one (ibidem, 278).
In this respect our early Cistercian Fathers revealed in their spirituality the same kind of sensitivity to the inner workings of transforming grace in the depths of the spirit that the Hesychasts displayed. True they cultivated the theme of light with certain modifications, giving a strong emphasis to the humanity of Christ in the case of St. Bernard, and, with William of St. Thierry, to the embrace of the Holy Spirit that lifts the contemplative into the bosom of the Blessed Trinity. St. Bernard viewed the birth of Christ in the flesh as the appearance of the eternal light in a world where, save for the spark of light that is reason, our human race lived in deep darkness.
And so the Only Begotten Son of God, the sun of justice, is like an immense and brilliant candle that has illuminated and lit up the prison of this world. As a result all those who wish to be illuminated might come to him and be joined to him so that there might be nothing between them and him. For our sins separate us from God, but when they are removed, we are enlightened by the light and are as it were made one body and connected in him (In Vigilia Nativitatis Domini Sermo III.2 PL 183: 95).
The light of glory as a symbol of the loving knowledge of God to be contemplated in all eternity and revealed to us on earth in the mysteries of his only-begotten son is prominent in their teaching because it was so central in their hope and so impressive in their experience. In his Sermons on the Ascension, Bernard, speaks of this light with fervor. He anticipates with joy the day when Christ will return in glory to take his faithful to himself.
He came at first humble to save souls; he will come sublime to raise up this cadaver and conform it to his body of glory and he may be seen to bestow on this weak vessel a more abundant honor. For then he will be seen with great power and majesty who first was hidden in the weakness of flesh. I shall also look upon him, but not now; I shall see him, but not near. His second glorification will clearly outshine his first glorification by the excellence of his glory (In Ascensione Domini Sermo II.4 PL 183: 303).In another sermon for this feast, the abbot of Clairvaux speaks of the grace of Christ as performing the essential function of enlightening our intellect already in this life. This takes place along with the purification of our affections and desires as we expose ourselves in prayer to the inner workings of Christ's grace and that of his Spirit.
Our intellect was troubled not to say blinded, and our affections defiled, and very much so. But Christ illuminates the mind and the Holy Spirit purifies the affections....Does it not seem to you that Christ illuminated their (the disciples) minds when he opened to them the meaning that they might understand the Scriptures, showing them that Christ was to suffer and rise from the dead and thus enter into his glory? (In Ascensione Domini Sermo III.2, 3 PL 183).
William of St. Thierry, whose spiritual theology is particularly concerned with the process of integration of the whole man, speaks of the effect of contemplating God's attributes as an illumination of the affections as well as of the intellect.
For God helps with his countenance the man who looks upon him; the splendor of the Highest Good moves and leads onward and attracts the man who contemplates it. And when reason as it progresses mounts on high to become love and grace, comes down to meet the one who so loves and desires, it often happens that reason and love, which produce those two states, become one thing...In this regard man is easily led to love God by thinking about or contemplating what is worthy of love in him, which of itself shines upon the affections of the contemplative (The Golden Epistle, 195, 6, 274).And carrying his analysis further he points out that the truest knowledge of God is beyond all thought and form and adds the following considerations .
For this is the face of God which no one can see and live in the world. This is the Beauty for the contemplation of which everyone sighs ... When eventually a man is admitted to this vision he sees without any doubt in the light of truth the grace which forestalls him (op. cit.297 and 298).
This light is of such a degree of excellence and purity as to leave the one who beholds it for a brief time keenly aware of his own uncleanness and groans at his unworthiness. Far from leading to pride or vanity the grace of illumination results in a higher sensitivity to one's defects as well as a more ardent love of God who is all beauty and goodness. Thus it produces a profound humility of heart. Already in an earlier book, he had related the spiritual sense of vision to love and affection so that it is not surprising that he would stress the transforming power of light on the affective function of the soul as well as on the intellect. He states the case in the following terms.
Concerning the fifth sense, divine love is compared to vision. For vision is the principal sense just as divine love occupies the chief place among the affections. From the vision of the eyes the other senses are said to see, even though the eye alone is capable of sight. For we say "Touch and see, taste and see", and similarly of the rest. In the same way from divine love other things are said to be loved when they are loved well. For it is clearer than light that nothing ought to be loved except for the sake of God (De Natura et Dignitate Amoris, 23, ed. M.-M. Davy, Paris 1953, p. 98).
The Spirit as source of interior light bestowed at baptism remains the very basis of the spiritual life throughout the whole of our days on earth. This is as true today as it was in the time of our Lord, of the Fathers who preached his Gospel in the early centuries and of our Cistercian fathers in the Middle Ages. Christ is still the light of the world, as Vatican II proclaims in Lumen Gentium, the document on the Church. This is the case not only be cause his message is preached by the Church throughout the world, but also because his light shines in the hearts of those who accept his word as revelation of divine truth. This light in addi tion to providing knowledge and experience of heavenly realities and their significance for our human race is also an energy that impels those who receive it to walk according to the mysteries it discloses. Further, even as it motivates behavior it operates as well in the depths of the heart transforming us in the likeness of the Lord Jesus who, together with the Father, is its source. As we advance into the final weeks of Lent let us be especially attentive to the Spirit who is ever active within the depths of our spirit. May he reveal to us the Beauty and Goodness of the Father reflected in the face of his beloved Son, that Son who loves us and gave himself for us on the cross that we might walk in his light and be transformed by his grace on our way to the kingdom of eternal light.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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