I was once in a parish in which we baptized a choir member. Let’s call him Joe. Joe had been part of the Sunday music ministry for many years, and yet he was unbaptized. Then one year he decided it was time. I still remember his baptism. His godfather helped him kneel in our makeshift font. Joe was a big guy and some of the water sloshed onto the church floor.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father,” said the pastor as he gently pushed Joe’s head forward, down under the water.
“And of the Son,” he said, pushing Joe’s head down again, sloshing more water onto the floor.
“And of the Holy Spirit,” the pastor proclaimed, dunking Joe and third time.
Joe stood up, raised his arms high, and shouted “Alleluia!” as water cascaded down his body and over the sides of the font.
A three-part movement in every ritual
In that ritual moment, Joe entered “into the promised fullness of time begun in Christ…” (RCIA 206). We know that all of us who are baptized are living in the “fullness of time.” And yet, we also know the fullness has not yet been completely realized. We live in liminal state—a betwixt and between time—in which we are no longer part of the past world but are not yet fully part of the new creation.
- Separation from the past
- Incorporation into the new
Ritually, when Joe stepped into the font, he was letting go of his past life. When the priest “buried” Joe in the water, he was transitioning into his new life. When he rose up out of the water, he was a new person.
Joe’s ritual transition was foreshadowed a few minutes before it happened when the lector proclaimed Paul’s letter to the Romans:
- Separation from the past: “We know that our old self was crucified with him.”
- Transition: “If, then, we have died with Christ [through baptism]”
- Incorporation into the new: “we shall also live with him
Baptism is the climax event that marks a permanent shift from the past into a new life in which the Christian neophyte now walks with Christ. However, even though the new Christian is decisively in the “new” and no longer part of the old, he still lives in liminality. Dying to our old lives is a life-long process that will only finally be completed when Christ returns to gather everyone into God’s reign.
What are you preparing your seekers for?
The important thing for us as RCIA leaders to keep in mind is that the entire catechumenate should be focused on preparing the seeker to live in that liminal state. The “training…in the Christian life” (RCIA 75) that we provide them is training for dying to our old selves while learning to walk by the spirit of faith in the company of Christians.
Why that is important becomes clear when we think of Joe’s baptism. Joe spent years walking in the company of Christians. Joe was well trained in dying to sin. Many parishioners didn’t know he wasn’t a Christian. But he had not yet undergone the ritual transition to a liminal life. He was, in a sense, still in the “old room.” For whatever reasons he may have had, he was holding onto the old and failing to embrace a new life in Christ.
Until the time was right. Until, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the “fullness of time begun in Christ” became full in Joe’s heart. When that happened, Joe was ready to step into the font, die to the old, and rise up to live with Christ.
And that process of moving from the old room, through the doorway, and into the new room is a ritual process. It is the rites of the catechumenate that, step-by-step, move the seeker to the climax event of baptism. In future posts, we’ll look at how the rites work to bring the seekers to that critical moment of transition.
What are you preparing your seekers for? How can you celebrate the rites in your parish in a way that leads them to a new way of life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.