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Baptism: Renounce sin and proclaim Christ Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 05, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
Patrick Gorman

Lent is a season of preparation and recollection of our Baptism. This is the fourth in a series of several articles reflecting upon the Sacrament of Baptism.

Imagine yourself in darkness with only a few candles providing light. You are standing in a secret location in the middle of the night, shivering from the cold and damp.

You have been "apprenticing" as a Christian for some time and at last you are about to join this small sect. You have no idea what will happen next and you don't understand some of the things that already have been done.

Suddenly, your companion (godparent) turns you around, you are told to reach out and imagine standing face-to-face with the devil. Finally a booming voice from out of the darkness asks, "Do you renounce Satan?"

Baptism in early years

This is what it was like if you were baptized in the first centuries of our faith. Archeologists, theologians, and historians have uncovered baptisteries and written accounts from this time.

Most valuable of all are homilies from some of the early Church fathers such as St. Augustine (†430), St. Ambrose (†397), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (†386), and others.

While aspiring Christians may have spent a good deal of time in the catechumenate, they were told little about the rites until after they were over. There was no Saturday morning rehearsal -- they simply had to go with the flow. How much easier it is today.

Yet, if we're not careful, we may miss the mystery taking place before us. We run the risk of taking it for granted.

Meaning of conversion

Conversion is a word that is vital to the Church. In today's world, many of us equate conversion with accepting Christ as our savior or focusing more on God. There may be some self-sacrifice or some acknowledgment to cease a certain sin (or sins).

The Church defines conversion as "a radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and toward God" (emphasis added). (1) Conversion requires the rejection of Satan, and all his works, and all his empty show. St. Cyril of Jerusalem said that when we do this, we show that we no longer fear Satan. (2)

Renouncing Satan

In those earliest centuries of the faith, the candidate was instructed to turn toward the west (the direction from which the sun sets and darkness falls) and answer the questions as if standing face-to-face with the devil. They even were sometimes asked to reach out as if trying to touch him.

We've been hearing more and more about the devil since Pope Francis' election. If you think of the devil as a devious little guy dressed in red with a little pitchfork who sits on your shoulder encouraging you to do something bad, then talking about Satan may seem old-fashioned.

But if you think about the devil as the embodiment of evil, the one who lures us into sin, the one who tells us that we're not really sinning, the one who convinces us to turn our backs on Christ, then it takes a great deal of God's grace and courage to renounce him to his face.

Open our hearts to God

The good news is that we don't have to do it by ourselves. In fact, we can't do it by ourselves. Christ has won the victory. We simply need to open our hearts to God and his grace, to ask for strength, and to take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance.

Once those first baptismal candidates announced their rejection of sin, they were turned around to face the east, the direction of the sunrise, the light, from whence they expected to see Christ return in glory.

Having literally turned their backs to sin, they answer with confidence when asked if they believe in God. This changing of direction symbolized that they now have changed their allegiance. (3) Once this was done, they are ready for the actual baptismal act (which will be the focus of next week's article).

Today, we baptize new Christians (normally adults) at the Easter Vigil (just as they did 1,600 years ago) -- the same night that Jesus rose from the dead and defeated sin once for all.

Thus, even the day and date of the vigil is tied to Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. On that same night, we all renew our baptismal promises (often promises made decades ago on our behalf by our parents and godparents).

Ongoing conversion

As you continue on your Lenten journey, think about your own ongoing conversion. Are you able to radically reorient your life? What is it like to turn from Satan and towards Christ?

What's keeping you from a deeper friendship with Jesus? Do you ask for God to sustain you through his grace and strength?

Conversion often happens in stages, seemingly one sin at a time. I recall Bishop George Wirz would say that when he was asked whether or not he was "born again," he would respond, "Yes! and again and again and again."

Sometimes we take two steps forward and one back. God understands and if we can keep reminding ourselves that we can't save ourselves, we make room for God and his grace, mercy, and peace. And we too may be born again and again and again.

(1) See the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

(2) See The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (ed. Yarnold), p. 71.

(3) See The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (ed. Yarnold), p. 74.

Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison.