5 things you probably didn’t know about Baptism

Since I was not born Catholic, I actually remember my baptism.  But when all of Europe had become Christian, there weren’t really converts for a while.  Do you know what this did to Baptism?  Check out these 5 quick facts about how Baptism has changed with the ages:

  • The role of the “sponsor” was invented in the early Church as a counter-espionage tactic.  Because it was illegal to be Christian, there was always a danger that someone would pretend to want Baptism just to get inside the Church and rat everyone out.  The sponsor’s job was to vouch for the catechumen’s sincere intention and upright life.
  • Back in the day, babies were only baptized on Easter.  That’s how they did it when baptism was for adult converts, so that’s how they did it when only babies were entering the Church.  Already in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great argued that babies shouldn’t wait so long.  At least they didn’t make them wait three years, like catechumens!  But this led to another change….
  • Baptism and confirmation were not clearly distinct sacraments in the early Church.  They separated when priests needed to baptize babies on Easter but the bishop could only get to all the parishes once in a long while.  Then his anointing and laying on of hands couldn’t happen at the same time as the water dunking.  Speaking of which….
  • Baptism by full immersion came into vogue when only babies were being baptized.  In the earliest Church, people would stand in the water while someone poured water over their heads.  Babies can’t stand, so it was easier to dunk’em.  Eventually, somebody discovered that it was even easier just to pour water on them.
  • By the late middle ages, adults needed special liturgical exceptions to be baptized.  Everything had adapted to babies!  The rare convert from Islam or Judaism had to be exempted from the rubric saying he should be held in his sponsor’s arms.

I found my facts in this book and this one.  Do you know any weird Baptism facts?  Please share them in the comments.

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The Key to Passiontide and Holy Week

When my family walked into Church today, the crucifix and the statues were covered with purple cloths.  Fr. Dave told us that we had entered a time of looking forward to Holy Week, and he called up the candidates for baptism for a brief exorcism and a series of prayers.  Where does this special season come from?  What does it mean?

DixI am not a historian, but recently I have been reading about the history of the liturgical year.  Dom Gregory Dix has an amazing chapter on this history in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, and Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year has an interesting historical introduction to the season.  It turns out that the key to understanding Passiontide and Holy Week is baptism.  But to see that, we have to look at where the season first came from.

In the very earliest Church, when the apostles or their immediate disciples shepherded Christ’s flock, there was no “liturgical year” as such.  The seasons we know took final shape much later in the fourth century.  In the apostolic age, there were only two elements in the Christian year:

  • Sundays.  Christians gathered once every week, on the Lord’s Day, to listen to Scripture and celebrate the Eucharist.  This was not yet understood as a Christian day of rest, as per the fourth commandment, but simply as a day to worship and celebrate new life in Christ.  After Mass, Christians went to work.
  • Easter and Pentecost.  Christians celebrated a feast of the Lord’s resurrection on a Sunday near the time of the Passover, and they celebrated a feast of Pentecost forty days later, around the time of the Jewish feast of the same name.

Easter in the apostolic age was subtly different from the way we think about Easter now.  Liturgies in the Church, including every sacrament, have always had three meanings:

  1. A look backwards in time to what Christ did for us.  For example, the Eucharist recalls the Last Supper celebrated years ago in the upper room.
  2. A highlighting of the grace received in the present moment.  For example, the Eucharist signifies (and causes!) our present union with Christ and with each other.
  3. A look forward in time to when Christ will come again.  For example, the Eucharist gives us a glimpse of the “wedding supper of the Lamb” described in the book of Revelation (Rev 19:7).

Our Easter celebration today emphasizes all three, very strongly.  But in the earliest days, the emphasis fell on numbers 2 and 3; number 1, the past historical fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, did not receive the same attention as a past historical fact.  For example, there was no Good Friday celebration in which the death of Christ is commemorated apart from his resurrection.  Instead, recognizing that our salvation comes from what Christ did, the emphasis fell on how Christians in the present moment were transformed by grace and on how they would enter into God’s kingdom in the future.

Fitting right into this emphasis, Easter was the day when people were baptized.  The vigil the night before was a time of waiting for the baptismal grace with prayers and readings, and at dawn on Easter Sunday the bishop would baptize the candidates and give them an exhortation, and then the newly baptized would celebrate their first Eucharist with the entire congregation.  Scholars often refer to The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus for a description of what happened.

To get into the spirit of the thing, try this experiment.  Imagine you are a gentile convert to Christianity in the waning days of the first century.  After a long period of waiting and scrutiny, you have stayed up all night listening to Scripture and praying for transformation in Christ.  At dawn you were baptized by the bishop, and now he is giving you an exhortation.  OK, now read the First Letter of Peter and imagine that as the bishop’s voice speaking to you.  Some people have supposed that 1Peter is a post-baptismal exhortation, but at any rate the themes in that letter are reflected in a lot of post-baptismal Easter homilies from the earliest centuries of the Church.

So what about Passiontide?  Well, that was a period of preparation for baptism.  Catechumens went through two or three years of waiting and scrutiny, during which they were taught little or nothing about the doctrines of the faith or the liturgies of the Church.  In the weeks leading up to Easter, the time for their baptism, they finally received doctrinal instruction.  In the last two weeks or so before Easter, they fasted and received more frequent instruction along with daily exorcisms, and in the final week leading up to Easter they would at last be given the Apostles’ Creed.  They fasted for the two days leading up to Easter, and capped off their preparation with the all-night vigil the night before.

That period of more intense preparation for baptism was the seed of our Passiontide, and in fact the seed of the entire season of Lent.  Eventually the entire congregation not only celebrated their baptismal transformation on Easter with the newly baptized but also prepared for that day along with the candidates for baptism.  The fast was extended back, and everyone was invited to attend the catecheses.

Now that the liturgical year has more historical emphasis, we have readings that look to what happened, historically, in the final weeks before Christ died.  But the key to understanding much about the season remains that it originated as a season of preparation for baptism–for re-birth in Christ.

What connections have you seen between Holy Week and baptism?  Let me know in the comments!

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Pondering the 4th Century Church

The more I read about the fourth century–that’s the 300’s, for all of you who are like me and don’t absorb history quickly–the more I see it as a kind of birth period for the Church.  Of course, Christ founded the Church from the cross and revealed her at Pentecost, but as soon as the Roman Empire figured out that Christians were not Jews then it was illegal to be Christian.  Even though the Church was by her nature a public and missionary thing, it’s hard to be all that public or all that missionary when anyone around you might rat you out to the government.

Imagine you have a foam model of a cathedral.  Then you squish it down and mash it and squash it until you can fit it into a tiny cube-shaped box.  The foam cathedral in the box is like the Church in the ages of persecution:  it’s all in there, but it’s compressed, in some ways beyond recognition.  When you take the foam cathedral out of the box, you see the Church over the course of the fourth century:  slowly, she spreads out her parts, unfolds herself, assumes her natural size and shape.  It was all in there, but in a way it is “being a cathedral” for the first time.

Of course, it’s wonderful to find out just how much was in that little box during the ages of persecution:  the doctrines already in place, like purgatory and the authority of bishops and the efficacy of sacraments; the practices already in place, like the Mass with its main parts already in force as they stand today.  But I have come to put a special value also on what seems to appear during the 300’s.  What did the Church do the very moment she was taken from the box?  That also tells us something very important.

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The Amazing Cyril of Jerusalem

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. I have been familiar with Cyril for many years through his Catecheses, written about 347 or 348 AD, just a couple of years before he became the bishop of Jerusalem. But only recently have I learned about the pilgrimage of Etheria st-cyrilto Jerusalem in about the year 385 AD: she wrote an account of her journey, including detailed descriptions of the liturgies in Jerusalem. When we look at Cyril’s writings from just before his episcopal ministry and Etheria’s account from several decades later, we can see what Cyril accomplished during his years as bishop.

His list of achievements is phenomenal. But to understand Cyril’s importance, you have to know a bit about Jerusalem’s place in the Church at the time. When Constantine legalized Christianity in 312, the Church began transforming herself from a private and secretive group into a public institution. The Church is public by her very nature, but the circumstances of Roman persecution had kept her, so to speak, crammed into a little box; the lid removed, she began to unfold her true dimensions. In this time of rapid change her liturgies, which had been secret and held in private homes and exclusive, became large, public, and impressive. At this crucial moment for the development of the liturgy, attention turned to Jerusalem.

The importance of Jerusalem for the new Christian world can be seen in the fact that Constantine’s own mother went on pilgrimage to the sacred sites in 325 AD. Under constant persecutions, Christians had focused on how the liturgy connected them with what is beyond this world, with heaven; the persecutions safely in the past, Christians could begin to think about how the liturgy also connected them with the world around them. And nothing in this world seemed so closely connected to the liturgical mysteries than the sacred sites of Jerusalem. Etheria’s pilgrimage was part of a wave of visitors to Jerusalem who came to worship at the sacred places and went home to report how worship was conducted in Jerusalem—Jerusalem, the original location where Christ offered his sacrifice!

Enter St. Cyril. He became bishop of Jerusalem toward the beginning of this flood of pilgrimages, and he shaped Jerusalem’s liturgies in response to the new need over the course of many decades. When pilgrims returned home to shape their local liturgies on what they had seen in Jerusalem, it was Cyril’s liturgies they brought home. Consequently, we can trace back to this one man’s influence:

  • The adoption of the divine office as a public function of the Church rather than a private devotion of monks.
  • Special readings at Mass and in the office for saints’ feasts and for different liturgical seasons (the proper of saints and the proper of seasons).
  • The liturgical veneration of saints from across the whole church instead of the veneration of local martyrs only.
  • The use of liturgical vestments, incense at the gospel, and other familiar elements in the Mass.
  • The liturgies of Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday, as well as the practice of not having Mass on Holy Saturday.
  • The series of readings we all know at the Easter Vigil.

So if you read the breviary today, thank Cyril. If you are looking forward to the beautiful Holy Week liturgies, thank Cyril. If you celebrate Cyril’s feast today, thank Cyril—he put us on track toward celebrating more than just local martyrs. And if you are awed by how much this one good pastor of the fourth century did for the Church, thank God!

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Saints day trivia

So you love besting your friends with obscure Catholic trivia.  You find a nugget of geekery and you treasure it up, waiting like a spider in its web to rush out and pounce on some Catholic friend or acquaintance with your stumper question.  Well, I have a little gem for you.

Question:  What saints’ feast days fall on different days depending on what year it is?

Think about this one before you read the answer.  The solution has nothing to do with a difference between the old and new calendars (although we’ll say something about that difference in a moment).  It has nothing to do with when Easter falls, or how many Sundays there are in Advent.  Got it yet?

In the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology, 9 saints are celebrated on February 28.  But in a leap year, saints 4 through 7 are moved to February 29.  Those are Pope St. Hilary, St. Oswald, Blessed Antonia of Florence, and St. Augustus Chapdelaine.

The pre-Vatican II martyrology has a somewhat messier solution for leap years.  The vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle is celebrated on February 23 together with a number of other saints, with his feast falling on February 24, again together with a bunch of other saints.  But in a leap year, February 24 is emptied entirely and the only martyrology entry for the day is “the Vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle”.  What would normally be celebrated on the 24th is bumped to the 25th, the 25th is bumped to the 26th, and so on until the 29th has what used to be the saints of the 28th.

Both solutions are odd, but they escape something even odder.  If February 29th had its own saints, then we would only celebrate those saints liturgically once every four years!

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The Holy Innocents

December 28

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs.  These children, who were killed in Bethlehem of Judea by the impious king Herod so that the infant Jesus might perish with them, he whom the Magi had adored, have been honored as martyrs from the earliest days of the Church, the first fruits of all those who would shed their blood for God and for the Lamb.


May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord

R. Is the death of his holy ones.

V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in pace.

R. Amen

[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]

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How well do you know Church and sacraments?

It’s final exam week at WCC.  What I really wanted to do this week was work on my novel, but instead I had to write, administer, and grade a final exam for the seniors.  The result was a blend.  Here’s what the test instructions said:

I need you to help me complete a story I’ve been working on, all about a senior at Wyoming Catholic College who goes home for the holidays and meets up with some old friends.  Read the story and, where you see the prompt Short answer or Essay, fill in the appropriate answers.

It was fun to write and–from what I am told–fun to take.  If you would like to test your own knowledge, you can click here to see the exam.  But if you just want to read the final story, I used student answers (word for word, no editing!) to fill in the gaps in this version.  For variety, I picked answers from seven different students; if I had written the answers myself they would have looked different, but it’s more fun to see how the seniors collaborated with me on the project.

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A Jesse Tree Catechism

Not the Jesse Tree we use at home!

Like a lot of families, we put up a “Jesse Tree” every Advent as a way of getting the kids focused on something about Christmas other than the P-word.  Ours is a simple thing, a tree drawn on a cloth with some ornaments hand stitched by my wife’s mother years ago.  When I began teaching Salvation History courses for college students, I brought the Jesse Tree in toward the end of the fall semester to tie a few things together.  If you put up a Jesse Tree in your home, or if you’ve ever wondered what the whole thing is about, you might enjoy seeing how I approach it with my students.  It’s the same thing I do at home with the kids:

Q. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree. Continue reading “A Jesse Tree Catechism”

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A Sequence for Advent

A few years ago, we bought a wooden advent calendar with little doors concealing magnetic figures that can be arranged on a nativity scene:

Advent Calendar

Last year during Advent I set myself a poetic challenge:  I would hide a slip of paper behind the door with each figure, and on that paper would be a rhyming couplet that said something about the figure; all the couplets together would form a coherent poem to be recited on Christmas Eve when the last door had been opened.  I had to think ahead about the best order for the figures, taking into account that the biggest ones could not fit behind the littlest doors.  But once the order was set, I wrote the couplets day by day, scrambling each evening to prepare the morning’s rhyme.  Some mornings I made excuses to delay the morning Advent Calendar ritual and buy extra time to write!

Once the first stanza was done, my friend Peter Kwasniewski composed a Gregorian chant setting for it, in the one-note-one-syllabus style of a liturgical “sequence” like the Victimae paschali.  The “Advent sequence” was a success, and the melody haunting:  you can read and decide for yourself here.  If you are not familiar with Gregorian chant notation, you can listen to my rendition of it here:

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The spirit of the Solemnity of All Saints

For anyone interested in the Martyrology, or the Church’s “sanctoral cycle,” November 1 is an especially uplifting feast.  By venerating all saints at once, this celebration more than any other day of the year invites reflection on the very phenomenon of venerating saints.  Today’s entry in the older Martyrology highlights the origin of the feast:

The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year, in the city of Rome, in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs.  It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honor of all saints.

The 2004 edition of the Martyrology focuses on the goals of the feast:

The solemnity of all Saints who with Christ are in glory, by which, under the joy of one feast, the holy Church still in pilgrimage on earth venerates the memory of those whose society causes heaven to rejoice, so that she may be spurred on by their example, may rejoice in their protection, and may be crowned by their triumph in the sight of the divine majesty unto endless ages.

Of the three goals listed, the first two are standard.  Mediator Dei 166-168 and Sacrosanctum Concilium 104 and other sources teach that we venerate the saints in order to be instructed and encouraged by their example and in order to benefit from the protection of their prayers.  But the third goal listed in the Martyrology points to something more:  that we “may be crowned by their triumph in the sight of the divine majesty unto endless ages.”  What does it mean?

Of course, it could just mean that we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints so that we can be saints, too, that is, so that we can be crowned by a triumph just like their triumph.  But I like to see in this words the stronger assertion that we will be crowned by their triumph.  Because we are all citizens of one heavenly city and members of one mystical body, the glories of the saints are our glories, and to the degree that we make our calling and election sure (2Peter 1:10) we lay more permanent hold on the claim that their triumph is ours.

The reason I like this “strong” reading of the Martyrology is that it emphasizes our communion with the saints, the fact that we are bound together as one by the sharing of spiritual goods, as Leo XIII explains in Mirae Caritatis 12.  And this opens onto the profound teaching of Lumen Gentium 50: “Nor is it by the title of example only that we cherish the memory of those in heaven, but still more in order that the union of the whole Church may be strengthened in the Spirit by the practice of fraternal charity.”

This beautiful sentence sets the definitive context for today’s Solemnity:  the saints’ example is good for me, and the saints’ protection is good for me, but the fact that the saints and I are bound together by mutual attention and concern is good for the Church.  In a given situation I may need an example to follow, and in a given situation I may need the help of someone’s prayer, but at all times and by her very nature the Church needs to have spiritual unity.  Of course, the very fact that all the members receive life and direction from Christ the head makes the Church one in reality, but this good is incomplete until it is carried into action.

One can see this emphasis in that wonderful proto-martyrology, chapters 11 and 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews.  After listing and commemorating one after another of the saints who have preceded us, the author says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Heb 12:1).  Even though the thrust of the whole passage is an appeal to the example of the saints, the image of being “surrounded” by a “cloud of witnesses” says much more than “Let’s be virtuous like those people back then were virtuous.”  It says, “Your whole community is watching you and cheering for you and they understand what you are doing because they’ve done it too!”  It says, “The saints are interested in you and your doings just as you are interested in them and theirs, and they rejoice in your victories as you rejoice in theirs!”  This way of thinking of the saints’ example highlights the unity of the Church in the sharing of spiritual goods—something not only good for us or good for them but good for the Church as such.

In one sentence:  Veneration of the saints in and of itself, even apart from answered prayers and examples emulated, builds up the Church.

P.S. Did you notice that the proto-martyrology is a catalogue of Biblical Saints?

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