The Great Vigil of Easter
April 15, 2006
In the Name of God, who gives us life, sets us free, and draws us into the beloved community. Amen.
The Easter Vigil readings speak to us of the three-fold pattern of God’s activity in the world: God gives us life, God sets us free, God draws us into community. This is the way Christians describe their experience of God, symbolized in the mystery of the One God named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Into this Holy Name we will baptize Caroline Jane Freeman Cherry this evening, initiating her into the mystery of this life giving, liberating, community building God.
These lessons serve to remind us of the meaning of baptism and its power to transform our lives. In our tradition, we understand two great sacraments as necessary to salvation: baptism and Eucharist. They are necessary, not in the sense that only those who participate in the ritual acts of baptism and Eucharist can be saved; but that only those who, by God’s grace, discover their true self in community and continually nourish that identity in community can become fully alive and fully free.
The power of baptism lies in its capacity to be such a vehicle of grace, revealing to us our true identity and empowering us with the freedom to embrace this identity. For infants like Caroline, it is our responsibility to be the bearers of this grace for her until she can claim it for herself. Tonight, we commit ourselves to this responsibility on her behalf. It is an awesome responsibility; for we are entrusted with the care of her soul, with aiding her in the journey of discovering her true identity as God’s beloved child.
As we all well know, this is not an easy journey. We grow up and come to self-awareness shaped by all manner of powerful forces, some of which are benevolent, some of which are malevolent, and most of which are mixed at best. This is the body of sin in which we are born, the “old self” as St. Paul calls it, the self that is created by the forces of socialization and biological necessity that never adequately characterize all of who we are and, in fact, can badly deform our sense of self. This old or false self isn’t necessarily bad; in some ways it may, in fact, serve us very well. The problem is that it is at best incomplete, and at worse deceptive.
Paul speaks of this old self as trapped in the body of sin; not sin as a moral category, but sin as a state of alienation from our true identity as God’s beloved children. The structures of the world internalized in our own psyches trap us into patterns of thinking and behaving that draw us away from our original condition of blessing, of life and of freedom. While some of us experience this body of sin more profoundly than others, none of us can escape from it entirely. We all develop a false self to protect us from our fears, both real and imagined, and perpetuate the body of sin by projecting those fears onto others.
So, tonight, we will ritually drown Caroline in the waters of baptism, symbolically putting to death the old self, the body of sin, so that she may rise to new life aware of her true identity as God’s beloved child. This identity is her birthright, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. Caroline, like all of us, is the object of God’s unconditional, deathless love. There is nothing we can or need do to earn this exalted status – it is simply given to us. All we need do is relax into God’s love, letting go of the self of our parental, cultural, and even “Christian” expectations, which may or may not have anything to do with our dignity as children of God.
The death of the false self, letting go of all that separates us from God and one another, is not an event: it is a process. Baptism initiates this life-long process, which we ritually repeat in every celebration of the Eucharist; a process that requires faithful companions who will mirror back that which is of God in us. Tonight we promise to undertake the glorious, holy work of reflecting back to Caroline the image of God that shines in her, and we renew our commitment to do the same for each and all.
Notice that I said, “we.” That “we” is not just Caroline’s parents and godparents: that “we” is all of us. Caroline does not belong to Jackie and Beth. She is not their property. Caroline is part of the body of Christ, a unique and irreplaceable expression of the divine life who belongs to and with all of us.
As much as I love and respect Jackie and Beth, they can’t do this work alone. Trust me, they will need all the help they can get! And besides, why should they get to keep the joy of Caroline all to themselves! God’s love is abundant, overflowing, a fountain welling up in each of us. It demands to be shared. It cannot be contained. It has triumphed even over the grave. It will flow over us and through us, world without end.
Tonight, Caroline will begin the life-long process of dying and rising with Christ, of letting go of fear to rest in God’s love. It is not a linear journey. There will be steps backward, times of slavery, times of exile, requiring renewed liberation and returning home to the promised land of God’s presence. The good news, blessed Caroline, is that in all your journeying you will never be alone: no, never alone. We promise. Amen.