The following was first published in Pastoral Liturgy (LTP).
Of all the periods of catechumenal formation according to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults that of postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy is usually the most difficult for ministers of Christian initiation to implement and realize (see Journey to the Fullness of Life, 39). While manyhave pointed out that mystagogical catechesis as a method should pervade each of periods of Christian initiation (see, for example, Evangelii Gaudium 166), it remains the case that this final period is crucial for the reaggregation of the newly baptized into the assembly of the faithful. In this article I outline both a rationale for and a layout of how we implemented a post-baptismal catechesis or mystagogy during the Octave of Easter.
The RCIA specifies that the newly baptized should be “introduced into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel message they have learned and above all through the experience of the sacraments they have received” (RCIA 245). The newly baptized thus come, through sharing their story of faith, to give testimony to the conversion brought about in them and, by articulating their stories of initiation as part of the ongoing story of salvation, understand more fully and effectively themselves as witnesses to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Like the disciples who gathered in the upper room after the good news of the resurrection is proclaimed to them (Luke 24:33-48), the newly baptized “have truly been renewed in mind, tasted more deeply the sweetness of God’s word, received the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and grown to know the goodness of the Lord” (RCIA 245). For this experience to bear rich fruit in the assembly of the faithful and the lives of the newly initiated alike it must be shared and nurtured. For “out of this experience, which belongs to Christians and increases as it is lived, the [newly baptized] derive a new perception of the faith, of the Church, and of the world” (RCIA 245).
The principal locus of the period of mystagogy is envisioned by the RCIA to take place at “the Sunday Masses of the Easter season” (RCIA 247) in which the community’s gaze and prayers continue to be directed upon the newly baptized (RCIA 248) who are the subject of weekly preaching. An excellent resource for such is given in Cronin’s Encountering the Mystery of God: A Framework for Mystagogy from Easter to Pentecost (Mosaic, 2013). Like many other ministers of Christian initiation, however, I found it difficult to maintain such a whole-community focus on the newly baptized at a given Mass time for seven weeks in the midst of the myriad celebrations that also mark this season of resurrection in parish life including the baptism of infants, the celebration of the Rite of Reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church, and the consummation of initiation by the many receiving their first Holy Communion and Confirmation, as well as Mothers’ Day, baccalaureate, and other blessings. Like many catechumenate directors I had struggled to convince the newly baptized to meet for some form of post-baptismal catechesis apart from Mass and received ‘rates of return’ that had me sharing in Jesus’ own wonderment (Luke 17:17). I began therefore to look into the patristic models of mystagogy and discovered in the Octave of Easter an ideal framework for this period of Christian Initiation.
The Octave of Easter is a solemnity and takes precedence over all but the Paschal Triduum itself (see Roman Missal, Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 24 and Table of Liturgical Days, 2) thus extending the Easter celebration as single eight-day event, an opportunity for the Church to probe the depths of the mystery unveiled at the Great Easter Vigil, to feel the wounded side of Christ and return to the places where life conquered death, and to resound loudly the glorious note of resurrection throughout the week. This stretching out of the week, wherein the Easter season is a week of weeks (7 x 7), is particularly evident in the liturgical observance of the Octave of Easter in the Divine Office wherein the “Hymn, antiphons, psalms and canticle [are] as on Easter Sunday” (Liturgy of the Hours). While a parish might ideally gather the newly baptized together with the faithful for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist each weekday of the Octave the timing proved difficult in practice for our parish. In order to accommodate both the needs of the newly baptized and that of the wider community special solemn celebrations of Evening Prayer were therefore arranged for each evening of the Octave of Easter, beginning with Easter Sunday Vespers through to Evening Prayer on the Second Sunday of Easter. Each evening, by ritually sounding again and again the same glorious tone of our Easter Sunday of the Resurrection, the newly baptized gathered together with the faithful who were invited to join in “an eight-day retreat, exploring the primary symbols of the Paschal Triduum to probe the depths of our Christian life,” diving deeper into those mysteries in which the newly baptized have come to participate. Construed therefore as an ‘Easter mission,’ this annual occurrence of ‘Going an Octave Deeper’ invited the faithful to not only renew their own commitment to their Christian initiation but also invited them to develop even closer ties and greater intimacy with those who had been newly initiated into Christ (RCIA 246) in whose zeal all might come to share.
Though beginning each evening with an identical solemn celebration of Easter Vespers (apart from the variable short reading) we desired also to shine a spotlight as it were on the different aspects of the Paschal Mystery into which the newly baptized have been immersed just days before. We found the inspiration for doing so by again turning to the Octave of Easter as that time when many of the finest examples of mystagogical preaching found in the patristic literature were both first delivered to the newly baptized in the early centuries of the Church (see Yarnold’s The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Christian Initiation and Harmless’ Augustine and the Catechumenate, 300-345). These treasures are still opened to the faithful during the Octave of Easter in our age specifically in the second readings of the Office of Readings. Each evening when we gathered, following solemn Vespers, we would process to the baptismal font and, around a single symbol for that evening, invite the newly baptized to share their experience of participating in the Paschal Mystery of Christ (the invisible, the thing signified) by starting with their privileged vantage of the nearness of participating in the sacraments (the visible, the sign, see CCC 1075). To facilitate this “probing the rites of initiation, their gestures, symbols, and words in terms of their biblical foundation and essential role in Christian living” (Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching, 6) one principal symbol was chosen for each evening as noted below.
A brief introduction to the Octave of Easter, an explanation of mystagogical catechesis and some examples of the typological or figurative hermeneutic laid the groundwork for the neophytes to see that in their very selves the action of salvation has taken place and, that in continuing to bring about their sanctification through admission to the sacramental life, Christ has made them loci of salvation not only for themselves but also for the community at large. As we read in the second reading for the Office of Readings on Monday of the Octave of Easter “the type has passed away; the reality has come” (Bishop Melito of Sardis). Through sharing their stories of conversion with the intimate assembly gathered with them around the font where these neophytes were reborn the night before reveal the ongoing reality of the presence of Christ. This served as an invitation for the newly initiated to share what they experienced in the celebration of initiation. We concluded with what we took as the symbol that evening, an embrace of peace as a sign of Easter joy and our common bond as the baptized.
Using fire as a primary religious symbol the stories of Moses encountering God in the burning bush, Elijah calling down fire on Mount Carmel, and the Israelites following the pillar of fire were all given as types of the Paschal Candle, the transformative yet threatening power of the Holy Spirit as flame now handed onto the newly baptized. After inviting those present to share how they had been transformed by their encounter with Christ and how they felt called to hand on that faith to others, all were given an unlit candle by means of which they received the light of Christ from a taper lit from the Paschal Candle which they in turn handed on as we sang the “Alleluia” acclamation that was sung following their baptism two days before.
Water is the central symbol of the Easter Vigil, the very same water that flowed from the side of Christ, the fulfillment of the new temple foreseen by Ezekiel, both as a healing and refreshing fountain of life as well as a dangerous and death-dealing force. Our conversation began with these reflections on fire and the second reading from the Office of Readings for Thursday of the Octave of Easter. “You were lead down to the font of holy baptism just as Christ was taken down from the cross…You made the profession of faith that brings salvation, you were plunged into the water, and three times you rose again.” (Jerusalem Catecheses). The newly baptized were invited to share with all present how the experience of their baptism fulfilled in them the salvation foreshadowed in sacred scripture. One at a time they approached the baptismal font and made the Sign of the Cross with a profound gesture as we sang the Vidi Aquam used at the Easter Vigil sprinkling rite.
The wood of the Cross, the same large Cross used for the Good Friday celebration of the Passion of the Lord, was placed near the baptismal font and typologies, such as seeing the Cross as the new Tree of Life, the throne of Christ’s glory, the fulfillment of the incarnation foreshadowed in the crèche, the true pole of the earth, the taunt of empire, and as shady refuge of the eschaton to come (see Micah 4:4) were all laid before those present who were invited to share the burdens they had to bear in their conversion to Christ. All of those present were then invited to touch once again the Cross as a few verses from the Good Friday hymn “Faithful Cross” were sung.
The ambry adjacent to the baptismal font was opened and a light illumined the Sacred Chrism. The image of oil as penetrating, powerful, healing, and transformative agent made from the crushed flesh of the olive to give strength to others formed the basis of this evening’s conversation. We invited the neophytes to share how “we became ‘the anointed ones’ when we received the sign of the Holy Spirit. Indeed everything took place in us by means of images, because we ourselves are images of Christ” (Jerusalem Catecheses, from the second reading of the Office of Readings for Friday of the Octave of Easter). Those neophytes who joined us one week before the Chrism Mass shared their experience and sections of the prayer for Consecration of the Sacred Chrism and the hymn “O Redeemer” were shared. The oil, infused with the sweet aroma of Christ by the pneuma of the Holy Spirit, which is used to anoint as priest, prophet, and king was indicated as itself a type as David was a type of the Christ/anointed one to whom we are conformed in Christian initiation and likewise bear witness in fragrant reality. All were invited to waft toward their face the scent coming from the opened jar of Sacred Chrism that they might smell the sweet aroma during which the Veni, Sancte Spiritus as used during the anointing with Chrism at the Easter Vigil.
An empty chalice was placed on a red pall on the baptismal font. Images of blood revealing how blood is the symbol of life and death, reserved to God, serves to seal a covenant, and is that which is poured out in sacrifice for others so that they might also have life formed the basis for inviting the neophytes to share how their conversion had lead them to live for others. Echoing the cost of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ shared on Wednesday this evening, one week after Good Friday, lead them to understand more deeply how their conversion was something given them now for the building up of others. In conclusion the empty chalice was passed from person for each to gaze upon as the antiphon used during the Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday was sung.
The Gospel book, opened to the illuminated page of the Easter Sunday Gospel, was placed on a stand near the baptismal font. A brazier of incense was placed at the foot of the stand. The image of the Word, Jesus as the Word incarnate, was opened to the neophytes. They were invited to share how the sacred scripture had formed them in their faith, how they see themselves living into sacred Scripture, and how “their new participation in the sacraments enlightens [their] understanding of the Scriptures” (RCIA 246). In conclusion, as incense was placed in the brazier, all present came one at a time to the Gospel book in order to make some sign of veneration to the open book.
Sunday in the Octave of Easter
All of the neophytes, most of whom have gathered each evening for the last seven evenings since their rebirth in the waters of baptism, now attend the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist together. Each wears the white alb with which she was clothed at her baptism. This Second Sunday of Easter, long known as Quasimodo Sunday from the proper Introit, “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” rendered now as the Entrance Antiphon, “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia” (1 Peter 2:2), invites a focus on these newborns in Christ. The homily also spoke not only to the newly baptized, echoing the words St. Augustine spoke to the neophytes in Hippo, “I speak to you who have been reborn in baptism, my little children in Christ, you who are the new offspring of the Church, gift of the Father, proof of Mother Church’s fruitfulness…the very flower of our ministry and the fruit of our toil” (second reading from the Office of Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter), but also to all those nourished together at the supper of the lamb who, as missionary disciples, see the fruit of their own testimony blossom in those reborn in their midst. Together these newly initiated, our children in faith, also returned to God the gifts of bread and wine they received in the presentation of the gifts.
That evening the neophytes and those members of the assembly who have joined them for this eight-day Easter mission, “Going an Octave Deeper,” gathered for a final time for solemn Vespers then processed to the baptismal font. The pervading image we used this evening was that of bread. The image of Torah as bread, the manifold types of Eucharist found in the Old Testament (see the first readings appointed for the Seventeenth through Twentieth Sundays of Ordinary Time, cycle B in the Lectionary for Mass), the image of bread formed from crushed grains bound together in water and fired into a single loaf, the Eucharist prefigured in the Passover and instituted at the Last Supper, given in the post-resurrection appearances, and awaited in the eschatological banquet to come were all explicated as an invitation for the newly baptized to deepen their understanding of into whom they have been reborn. As St. Augustine writes in his Sermon for this day and which the church appoints for the second reading of the Office of Reading, “Today is fulfilled in you the sign of faith that was prefigured in the Old Testament by the circumcision of the flesh on the eight day after birth…you have received the sacrament or sign of this reality.” The newly baptized have been incorporated into the Body of Christ which they receive, presenting themselves as humble gifts, overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and now sent into the world to be witnesses to holiness. We conclude this Second Sunday of Easter and the whole “Going an Octave Deeper” by having the newly baptized take off their albs and place them at the foot of the sanctuary, while we sang Psalm 118, the Communion for Easter Sunday. This Second Sunday of Easter was known in the preconciliar Missal as Dominica in albis depositis, namely the Sunday for giving up or depositing those white albs the neophytes presumably wore during the whole Octave of Easter. These individual grains have, by removing their albs, taken off their distinctive garb, their husk as it were, and are now are sifted into the assembly of the faithful, a leaven full of zeal and new life in the one Body, the Church.
Preparing Candidates for Reception into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church
Though not initially designed for to prepare candidates for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church “Going an Octave Deeper” also served as a great retreat for those who men and women already baptized to “receive doctrinal and spiritual preparation…to deepen an inner adherence to the Church, where [they] will find the fullness of [their] baptism (RCIA 477). For these men and women the proximity of the immersion into the sacramental life may have been more distant; however, by joining with the faithful in renewing their baptism at the Easter Vigil and reflecting on their own baptismal covenant during this Octave of Easter they were awakened to the profundity of their own baptism in a process of anamnesis in advance of being subsequently received into the full communion of the Catholic Church, confirmed, and admitted to Holy Communion (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate 32-33).
It is my hope that this experience we had with a successful post-baptismal catechesis or mystagogy situated within solemn celebrations of Evening Prayer during the Octave of Easter will lead other ministers of Christian initiation to reclaim these and many more treasures of the church and, through mystagogical or liturgical catechesis, lead those who have been reborn to their full stature in Christ.
And may the “God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever” (Roman Missal, Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter).
Secondary Works Cited
Encountering the Mystery of God: A Framework for Mystagogy from Easter to Pentecost, Patrick J. Cronin, cfc (Mosaic, 2013).
Augustine and the Catechumenate, William Harmless, sj (Pueblo, 1995).
Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching, Craig A. Satterlee (Pueblo, 2002).
The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Christian Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A., Edward Yarnold, sj (Liturgical Press, 1994).