When he was only twenty eight, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was, condemned to death. It was the spring of 1849. He was condemned for reading ‘subversive literature and frequenting suspect gatherings of anarchists’. There was nothing in these charges, but at the time the Tsar, like other monarchs, who had survived the aftermath of the French revolution, was still paranoid. Two days before Christmas he was taken to the place of execution. The prison yard where he was to meet his death, was arranged with funereal decorations to suit the occasion and strike further terror into the condemned. The whole thing was a farce, a pantomime, ordered by the Tsar. It seemed to appeal to his obscure sense of theatre.
As the executioners raised their rifles the procedure was suddenly interrupted by a messenger, hot foot from the palace, with a reprieve – the charade was over. The sentence was commuted to eight years hard labour in Siberia. Later Dostoyevsky said that day, December 23rd 1849, was the happiest day of his life, for on that day he experienced both death and resurrection. It influenced him for the rest of his life.
It was in many ways like the experience of those first Christians on the day that they were baptized. Although they knew about their death and resurrection in advance and would have prepared for it for at least two years, it was still the most memorable day in their lives. When they were plunged into the baptismal pool, they died with Christ, and when they emerged they rose with him to the new life that he experienced at his glorification. The sacred action was repeated three times to remind them of the life of ‘The Three in One’ whose love they were destined to experience to eternity.
Although Dostoyevsky was reprieved from death this did not change the agony and the ecstasy that he experienced on those unforgettable two days before Christmas. It gave meaning to his imprisonment where he planned how to use the new life that he had been given. One hundred years later a fellow countryman experienced a similar sense of freedom when he was thrown into another Siberian labour camp. As he describes in his book The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that it was there, for the first time, that he felt a sense of freedom that he had never experienced before.
He was dead to the world that had imprisoned him and in prison he discovered a new freedom. It was here that he planned to make use of this freedom. Neither saw it as an end in itself then, but an opportunity to recommit themselves for the future where they could become their new selves.
It was exactly the same for those first Christians who came out of the pool where they had died with Christ, died to their old selves and to the world that they now rejected. It was this death that enabled them to enter into a new life in Christ to whom they now totally committed themselves, as they were signed with Chrism. The new freedom given to those two Great Russian writers enabled them to share the fruits of their death and resurrection experience with others through the quality of their books, while the newly baptized Christians were able to do likewise through the quality of their lives.
When Jesus rose again from the dead he was wearing a shining white garment. In order to express their new identity, after their anointing, the newcomers were clothed with a shining white garment too, which they would wear for a week and then reverently retain to remind them of the new life that they had received from the Risen One. His glorified life did not cease to flow onto and into them after the ceremony. It continued, not only on every day, but at every moment of their lives. Baptism does not symbolize what once happened one day many years ago in our past, but what is happening on every day and at every moment of our lives.
The life that they received immediately drew them up into the life and the loving of the Jesus as he is now. Once fully glorified, Jesus was caught up in an endless act of loving and being loved. The newly baptized are drawn up into his loving of his Father too, with him and in him, to receive in return the love that can now be shared with those others in the world. to whom they commit themselves to serve. The burning desire to offer themselves whole and entire to their heavenly Father, in with and through Jesus, was at last to be satisfied as all the newly baptized processed towards the Christian community.
They had shared prayers with them before, they had listened to the scriptures with them before, but now they would be allowed to remain with their new brothers and sisters for the sacred Eucharist that had been denied them before. Now that they had died to self to be fitted into the living action of the Risen One, they could participate for the first time in his sacred and sacrificial worship, His offering of himself to his Father.
After the first Jewish Christians had been excluded from the synagogues where they had prayed their Shema, and the sacred meals where they had prayed the Berakah, they made a decision. They would meet in one another’s homes to pray together. Here they would say still say the Shema, but now it took on a new form. It would still comprise the commitment to love God with their whole hearts and minds, with their whole bodies and with their whole strength, but now it was different. Now this commitment to love God with their whole beings was made in with and through Jesus, making it a far more powerful and effective prayer. If they couldn’t meet together for this prayer, it was still said privately three times a day as Jesus and his disciples had done before them.
It was in one another’s houses that they would meet to share sacred meals together too, where they would say the new Berakah, which we know to-day as the Eucharistic prayer or the Canon of the Mass, transposed from the Jewish prayer said at meal times, into a Christian prayer. However, when persecution became the norm, Christians had to be careful and so were forced to meet only once a week. The day they chose was on the first day of the week, given the name Sunday, as the rising sun became for them the symbol of the risen Christ. Here two ancient Jews institutions would take place together in their new Christian form.
The Shema would be said in the context of a service that comprised reading from the Old Testament, and then, as and when they were written, reading from the new, with vivid and inspiring sermons from those who had known Jesus personally or those who had known his nearest and dearest. The sacred and sacrificial meal would follow in which Christ would be made present. In order to understand what this meant for the newly baptized taking part for the first time, let’s just return for a moment to what happened immediately before and during the Last Supper.
Before this sacred meal took place some of the apostles would have offered a lamb in the temple. If God accepted this lamb he would take possession of it, penetrating it with his presence. What had been the apostle’s lamb would then become the lamb of God, so when they ate it with Jesus, they would all be able to enter into a profound symbolic union with God that would simultaneously bind them all more deeply together as a brotherhood.
This wasn’t the first time that this had happened, but this time what had once been a symbolic union with God and with each other, became a real union. It all happened in the middle of the prayer that they all knew and loved so well – the Berakah. As usual Jesus drew everyone’s attention to the prayer he was about to intone with the words -‘Lift up your hearts’ to which everyone would respond in time honoured fashion – ‘We lift them up to the Lord’, just as we still do today. Before it had been the lamb that they believed was filled with the presence of God but then, and for the future, it would be ordinary bread and wine that was everywhere available and affordable to all, that would be used. In future this commonplace food and drink did not just symbolise the presence of God like the paschal lamb, but brought about his presence in Jesus, as it had done for the first time at the Last Supper.
When the newly baptised received this sacred food and drink they could take part fully, more fully than ever before, in the same prayer that Jesus had prayed with his disciples, namely – the Berakah. But now this sacred food not only enabled them to enter into him to share his brotherhood with all who had entered into him, binding them all more deeply together, but much more.
For now in the new temple, which was nothing other than the mystical body of the Risen Lord, they could offer themselves and all that they had done for God, their common Father. Then, to the measure of their giving, they would receive the grace to enable them to go on and on living for, and giving to God their Father, ‘til the next great Eucharistic celebration. This was, in future, to be the pattern of their lives that would enable them to grow ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ, day by day, week by week, year by year.
What they finally learnt was that ‘in their trying was their dying, and in their dying was their rising, ‘til Gods Kingdom finally comes’.
For, as Simone Weil once said, ‘A person is no more than the quality of their endeavour’.