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THE TRUE BELIEVER

by Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.

There can be no doubt that Baptism and Eucharist are the two premier events in the
Church’s sacramental life. Not only do all the other sacraments flow from these two, but
Baptism is the way the Eucharist begins, and the Eucharist is the way Baptism is sustained in the
life of the Church. This means that, far from being totally separate events, Baptism and the
Eucharist work in the closest tandem. Their content is identical: Christ dying and rising still
among the members of his Church, only the idiom of its realization differs. In one case the
idiom involves bathing, while in the other the idiom involves dining together.

Over the past several centuries, Catholics have concentrated perhaps too much on the
idiomatic differences that set Baptism and Eucharist apart from each other. The differences are
obviously real. What is not so obvious is the equally real and crucially important identity of
content shared by the two events. There is but one Christ, dying and rising, who pervades both
the Church and all the Church’s deeds. To be apart from him, in whatever degree, is, to that
same degree, to be apart from the Church and its deeds. To be in him, whatever degree, is, to
that same degree, to be in his Church and involved in its deeds. As bands on a spectrum reflect
one light, so into the convolutions of our lives the sacramental deeds of the Church refract one
Christ, who is dying and rising still.

Yet all of the sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist assert this truth in the most emphatic
way. I may live my own life in him without marriage or ordination, but I cannot survive without
Baptism and Eucharist. Nor can the community of faith in which I live remain faithful without
constant access to these two. A eucharistic group that is neither baptized nor baptizing maybe be
many thing, but it is not the Church. A baptized and baptizing group that never celebrates its
death and life in Christ around the Lord’s Table may be a sect of some vigor, but it is not the
Church.

It can be argued that, while Catholics have rarely been tempted to this second course, we
have perhaps come close to succumbing to the first. We may be the word’s collective expert on
the Mass, but we have had little to say or do about Baptism. This is an awkward position to be in
if Baptism is the way Eucharist begins and Eucharist is the way Baptism is sustained in the
Church.

For to know Christ only in terms of bread and wine can be to know him only in the
dining room as guest and host. It is a valid enough knowledge. But it is inevitably partial and
perhaps too civil—easily layered over with a brittle etiquette soon rendered obsolete when
cultures change. It is a knowledge prone less to robustness than to niceness, reducing Eucharist
to a sort of ecumenical high tea. The Lord as guest is readily sentimentalized. The Lord as host
is readily transformed into an indulgent therapist of whatever lusts are monetarily ours. This
produces arrogance in the young, depression among the old, and apostasy for the Church.

Two main forces have traditionally balanced this tendency and checked its spread. The
first has been the attempt at keeping Eucharist as “banquet or meal” in tension with a perception
of Eucharist as “sacrifice.” The tension reminds us that, however elegant the knowledge of this
dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, and in the slaughterhouse—amidst
strangles cries, congealing blood, and spitting fat in the pan. Table manners depend upon
something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge ignorant of these dark and
murderous “gestures charged with soul” is sterile rather than elegant, science rather than
wisdom, artifice rather than art. It is love without passion, the Church without a cross, a house
with dining room but no kitchen, a feast of frozen dinners, a heartless life. The pious (religious
and secular) would have us dine on abstractions but we are, in fact, carnivores—a bloody bunch.

Sacrifice may have many facets, but it always has a victim.

The second force that has traditionally balanced and checked the spread of a hyper
civilized eucharistic knowledge of Christ has been baptismal. Here Christ is known not as he is
in the dining room as guest, host, and food. Baptism’s knowledge of Christ is that of the
bathhouse. It is not a mannered knowledge, for manners, etiquette, and artifice fall away as one
takes off one’s clothes. It is a knowledge of appalling candor, robust and intimate. It is less
mental than bodily, as when lovers are said to “know” each other. It is the inspired knowledge of
the Song of Songs rather than that of the Epistle to the Romans, for God speaks not only in logic
but also in smell and in the feel of oil and warm water on the skin. God says much in Romans
about his union with humankind, but he says even more about the same mystery in the soft porn
of the Song of Songs. There can be little doubt that more people have been willing to die for a
lover than for a doctrine of regeneration.

This sort of knowledge is, of course, not awfully civil. It is rarely brittle and never
rendered obsolete when cultures change. It abides. Profligates and great mystics share it:
converts and lover quickly learn it quickly. Only the conventionally pious avoid it, rather for the
same reasons, one suspects, that bourgeois society avoids having naked people to tea. A
mannered situation cannot survive too much knowledge. Thus the noble aunt in Oscar Wilde’s
The Importance of Being Earnest, on being informed of her two grown nephews’ approaching
baptism, huffs that such a thing must be regarded as grotesque and irreligious.

That a bathhouse Christ leaves those grown accustomed only to a dining-room Christ
uncomfortable is precisely what it should do. For the Great Civilizer was often uncivil, the Most
Nice distinctly un-nice, the Cornerstone of all subsequent conventions quite unconventional, the
Peacemaker sometime unpeaceful. He was the Paradox Unequaled. Nothing less could have
recreated the world.

To live in this knowledge, it is not enough to be a little mad. One has to be among the
living dead—dead to all that is not, alive to all that is. For the sin we call original separates us
not only from God but from all that is—his creation. It is an option that amounts to choosing
ourselves instead of all else and then attempting to recreate all else in our own image. Our sorry
state is the result of everything’s intractable refusal to accept our tacky little providence as
counterfeit for the Real Thing. Feeling rejected and then frustrated, we savage both ourselves
and everything that crosses our path, becoming alien in our own house. Death is the only exit.
Which is why, when God came among us, even he had to go this way. Thus our Christian
dinners are wakes, and our bathhouses are tombs—not for Christ but for ourselves. He sits at our
table fragrant with the ointment of his own blood, and we dine not only with him but on him.
For the “unlively dead”, such things are grotesque and irreligious indeed. But for the
“living dead” they are eucharists and baptisms, births and banquets in which Life is celebrated as
it was meant to be.

Having said all this, one would be less than candid if one did not admit that it suggests a
vision which seems to be will-nigh irretrievable in our parishes today. This may be so because it
has become difficult for us to take Baptism seriously anymore. Not only is it usually done rather
hastily, upon sleeping infants, in private, with a minimum of symbolic robustness (teacups of
water and dabs of oil), it has also been allowed to float free of the community’s regular worship-
life, especially at the Easter Vigil. And its normal finale—Confirmation and the reception of
Holy Communion—has been separated into distinct parts often delayed for years or even
decades. We are thus left with a pastel, truncated rite that looks more like a modest exorcism
from sin or a rather dispensable social occasion. By its universal association with infancy,
Baptism itself becomes a grotesque and irreligious thing to force on normal, healthy adults. This
being the case, pastoral emphasis has shifted away from Baptism to the more crucial rites and
ages such as Penance and First Communion for adolescents, with religious education and
counseling programs to match. The shift encourages us to become fixated on youth, leaving
baptized adults to shift for themselves, so far as they Gospel is concerned, and unbaptized adults
unevangelized.

A Church such as this may not be apostate, but it is surely suffering from sclerosis. It
will not hold its people for long if it moves into classrooms and office buildings, for it has
nothing significant to say in these places that everyone else cannot say as well or better. To
mutter to oneself is not the best way of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus dead and risen. To
do this as it should b done, the Church will have to be found speaking from places that teachers
and bureaucrats never frequent, but which keep a hold in terror and fascination upon the human
spirit: tombs, barnyards, tubs, scaffolds, and smoking altars. The Church must tell about death
and life from sites where the two meet and wrestle. And it must say these things not only in
words but in “gestures charged with soul”—first of all to those who are old enough to be aware
that they are, in fact, participants in the match rather that spectators at it.

It is a grim and serious business which must not be trivialized into mere ideology. It is
not a situation comedy, nor is its peculiar knowledge reducible to some new therapeutic fad.
Precisely because the match is grim and serious, its winning makes true celebration possible.
Only those how have stared death in the face, seen their own reflection there, and thrown both to
the ground in a bloody fight really know how to laugh. Having, like Dante, climbed down the
shaggy sides of evil itself in their own conversion, these know an Easter morning when they see
God. Then the wake becomes a banquet, the tomb an oasis where the waters of creation sparkle
up fresh beneath the Tree of Life.

It is so elemental an occurrence that it cannot be spoken of in mere prose. It requires
snakes in the grass, bread and wine on the table, water and oil in the bath, and luminous lambs
standing slain in courthouse squares. It cannot be put on a bumper sticker or in a missalette for it
is not a text. It is the recreation of the world.

If I really thought this occurrence and all that is implies were irretrievable, I would
despair of the Church, for it is of this that Christ made his Church unique minister to the world.
When he commanded the Church to go and teach, he did not mean physics or the social sciences
or liturgical ceremonial. He meant that it should go out from itself, announcing the Good News
that all is made new in Christ and forming men and women to live a wholly new life in a new
creation. The point of complete entry into this is the burial-bath of Baptism in Christ himself.
The Church is not a vague movement of gentle persons benignly disposed toward things in
general. The Church is a blood-filled corps of those who have been plunged into Christ’s death
and who live his eerie resurrection-life around a sacrificial table. To these nothing human or
divine is alien. The are the living battlefield where heaven and earth, life and death, spirit and
flesh slam together and fuse. Baptism is nothing less than Christ’s own passion, death, and
resurrection thrown open to all: it is the Church’s constant birth, fresh and new.

Baptism does not relieve the disease of original sin: It cures it, leaving its scars like
trophies. Baptism does not offer a better set of therapies to soften death’s inevitability: it
destroys death itself. Baptism does not confirm bureaucracy and status quo: it dissolves the first
and overturns the second. Baptism does not insulate us against reality: it throws back the covers
and kicks us out to dance naked with the real in the light of the moon.

To know Christ baptismally is to know him in the awesome discovery of conversion. To
live Christ baptismally is to know him in the subtle process of being formed by grace in heart
and mind, body and soul, emotions and memory—through prayer and fasting and good works
and contemplation. To be formed in Christ baptismally is to know him water and oil, in bread
and wine.

His power to do something for us is, as Thomas Jefferson said of the civil state,
commensurate with his being able to do something to us. But unlike the state, what Christ does
to us gives life and meaning only to what we have already, barrenly, done to him. We broke his
body, and he feed us upon it. We shed his blood, and he gives it to us as drink to rejoice our
hearts. We buried him wrapped in rags in a borrowed tomb, and he submerges us in living
water, anoints us with perfume. We turned him out, and he invites us into dine with him beside
the hearth-fire of creation. We stilled his breathing, and he blows into us, screaming like the
newborn, his own Spirit.

Yet even this is not enough, nor is it where the scandal lies. For to know him baptismally
is to know him as we were first known when creation was new. Baptismal iconography has
always imaged Baptism as cosmic rebirth, Eden restored. Early baptisteries, decorated to
resemble paradise, were filled with fertility, wines, sunlight, water, and a humid atmosphere.
They were gloriously womb-like, for from them issued a new People whose purpose in life was
to beget others by the Church, Christ’s bride, in his power. Thus the ancient inscription in the
baptistery of the Pope’s cathedral in Rome read:

Here is born
in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood predestined
to Another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church
their Virgin Mother.
Reborn in these depths,
they reach for Heaven’s kingdom,
the born but once
unrecognizable by felicity.
This pool is life
that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ
its awesome source.
Sinner sink beneath
this sacred surf
That swallows age
and spits up youth.
Sinner here scour sin away
down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are
by one Font, one Spirit,
and one Faith made one.
Sinner shudder not
at sin’s kinds and number:
for those born here are holy.

Here is the scandal. The knowledge of Baptism is not just knowing what has been done
to one as a passive receiver. The baptized also know that, having been born into Christ, they
have become cooperators in him with respect to everyone and everything else. His broken body
is my broken body upon which others feed. His blood spilled is my blood shed to rejoice the
hearts of all. His tomb is mine, and in it others die to rise again. I have become him. The
Stranger, and through me he beats the bushes, herding everyone in to dinner by creation’s
fireside. His unique Spirit I breathe into each of my brothers and sisters. For he and I have
merged by grace into one being, and we abide together for the life of the world.

Baptism enables me, when I look upon the host at Communion-time, to see not just bread
and not only a Christ otherwise absent from my life, but to see myself in him, a living member of
his Body, the Church. It is to this I say Amen before I receive what I have become. This is no
longer just knowledge. It is wisdom.

Lest it be thought that I am trying to exalt Baptism at the expense of Eucharist, it must be
remembered that Catholic teaching has always insisted that Baptism is the necessary condition
for valid eucharistic activity. For this reason, the early Church dismissed the unbaptized from
the assembly before the eucharistic prayer began, not because those not yet baptized were
unworthy of the Eucharist, but because they were incapable of it. To celebrate Christ’s Body, it
is necessary to be a member of that Body, the Church.

The catechumenate, which was the formation program by which people were prepared
for this membership, was a long-term process that emphasized less what we today would call
religious education and more spiritual and moral formation. But the catechumenate was far more
than just a formation program for non-Christians. It was regarded as an essential Church
structure, an order not unlike orders of ministry and the order of the baptized faithful,
Catchumens were thus regarded not as pagans but as Christians who had already begun to
believe in Christ but—rather like the apostles in the early days of their being called by the Lord
to follow him—had not yet reached an initial maturity in faith that could bear the stress of full
enfranchisement in the Body of Christ by being plunged into his death. Hearer of the Word and
follower of Christ the catechumen had to be. And for this reason, the Church regarded him or
her as an indispensable reminder of, and source of information about, its own nature as a
community of continual conversion in Christ. The Church focused the whole of it its most
important time of the year, the Easter-preparatory time of Lent, upon the catechumens, viewing
them almost as living “sacraments” of conversion who revealed its costs and glories. The Lenten
readings thus were directed not only at the catechumen but at the whole Church, as both prepared
to relive Christ’s passage from death to life, Good Friday through the Easter Vigil (when
baptisms were regularly done). The great lessons of Lent—the story of the flood, of Jonah and
the fish, of Susanna and the dirty old voyeurs of the Exodus—sank so deep into the Christian
consciousness as icons of tuning from death to life that their scenes appear over and over again
on early Christian baptisteries, sarcophagi, mausoleums, catacombs, statuary, vessels, and even
coins.

Such an intense climate of baptismal piety energized the Church to feats of
evangelization and to pastoral, theological, and liturgical creativity hardly equaled since. The
Church has always been at its most vigorous the closer it has stayed to cross and font.

In this light, several factors today give one cause for modest optimism, because all of
them betray a growing awareness of the centrality of baptismal knowledge for Christian renewal.
Once such factor is the realization of how essential the spiritual formation of adults is to the
Church. Charismatic groups are largely adult affairs, and their emphasis upon conversion, the
quality of prayer, and communal support refurbishes elements that once were the core of the
catechumenate as a structure within every local church.

Another factor is an increasing diversification of ministry within in the Church. With
this, it becomes less possible to sustain the fatal assumption that to be a bishop or a priest is to be
“first-class citizen” in the Church, as opposed to everyone else, or that the aristocracy of
ordained ministries at the top rests upon a proletariat of the baptized at the bottom. The
assumption is fatal because of the warp it introduces into the nature of the Church and its
sacraments. It is Baptism which is necessary for salvation not Holy Orders. Mrs. Murphy is not
baptized to serve her pastor: he was ordained to serve her.

A third factor is the baptismal reforms introduced since the Second Vatican Council,
particular the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972). This Rite not only restores the
catechumenate and emphasizes the organic unity of the sacraments of Christian initiation
(Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, in that order) but it implies that baptism of adults should
be the norm, thus putting a much needed premium on catechesis as conversion-therapy—rather
than as classroom religious education. It also implies, that, it there are to be sufficient adult
candidates for its baptismal norm to become anything more that an embalmed ideal,
evangelization of the unchurched must be placed much higher on the list of priorities than is
presently the case in the Church. A Church in which infant baptisms outnumber those of adults
by eleven to one, as occurred in the American Catholic Church in 1976, is not very evangelical.
It is noteworthy that the subject of evangelization has been addressed by no less than a papal
encyclical an excellent pastoral letter of the American bishops, and a world synod of bishops—
all within the past four years. No less noteworthy is the fact that the so-called “evangelical”
churches, in which adult baptism often is the norm, are the ones growing most vigorously both
here and abroad.

A fourth and final factor is personal, and thus not wholly verifiable. It is my own
intuition that we have begun to see through some of the recent totalitarianisms we absorbed as
we leaped into relevance during the past decade. A colleague has referred to this as jettisioning
some of the “wide load” we hauled out of the sixties into the present. In short, perhaps we are
relearning (thanks at least to Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Charles Manson, and cold homes) the
lesson St. Paul taught us in 2 Corinthians:

For it is not ourselves that we are preaching, but Christ Jesus as the Lord and ourselves
as your servants for Jesus’ sake. It is the same God that said, “Let light shine out of
darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to radiate the knowledge of God’s glory in the
face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that such
overwhelming power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every away,
but never crushed: perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not slain; always bearing in our body Jesus’ death, that his life may be
seen in us.

Such is our mad good news, the meaning of our catechesis, the substance of our Lent and
Easter, the content of our fonts, the food on our tables, the Life we live. It is the essence of the
Church as it serves the world, judging it even as it holds it in its arms. It is the Ancient Wisdom
we must continue to grasp firmly if we are to remain faithful to the present—shuttling back and
forth between font and table, learning it whole and always anew. It is our old Naomi, we its
loving Ruths.

Sign (April 1978)