“Stand in awe and rejoice, we have become Christ!”: Baptism and Mystagogy

Beautiful sea in Southsea today, hottest day of the year

Beautiful sea in Southsea today, hottest day of the year so far!

This is a wonderful line about Baptism from St Augustine (from his writings on the Gospel of St John). Today is the anniversary of my own Baptism, so I have been reflecting on it a little. I spoke with my mum on the phone earlier and she even found the page in her diary she wrote on my Baptism day! Quite moving. (If you don’t know your Baptism date, find it and celebrate it each year – it was the most important day of your life!) Eastertide is a perfect time to reflect on Baptism. It is the time when, traditionally, neophytes (the newly baptised) enter into a period of mystagogy. We don’t have this in my own parish at the moment as our catechumens and candidates are all still in the enquiry or catechesis phases. But next year, after Easter, I hope we’ll do mystagogy in style 🙂

In her earliest centuries, when the Church was still being heavily persecuted, and when it was a great risk to become a Christian, the Body of Christ was growing at a great rate, around 40% per decade. (Imagine for a moment that your parish grew by 40% in ten years… what would your RCIA look like?) You can imagine that with these kinds of numbers, a clear process of initiation was needed that at the same time safeguarded the holiness of the mysteries that were being taught. Furthermore, these seekers were leaving behind a culture very different from the life that the teaching of Jesus required. It is not surprising, then, that years of formation were often expected of the new seekers.

I often think that our own situation today is perhaps as similar to the early Church’s situation as it has ever been. No, we are not being persecuted as heavily, but the culture in which people are steeped is as post-Christian (if not as anti-Christian) as it’s ever been.

One of the most interesting things is that the most sacred mysteries of Christianity (the reality of the sacraments, the sign of the Cross) were only revealed to the newly initiated after their Baptism. It was called “the discipline of the secret” and the early Fathers urged Christians not to disclose these mysteries. Clearly, safeguarding their sacredness was one reason. Another of the main reasons was that the mysteries – so awe-inspiring were they – could only be understood with the grace of Baptism flooding the intellect and giving light and understanding.

What strikes me today, as I thank God for the greatest gift of my entire life – my Baptism – is that our mystagogy never ends. The process of contemplating, studying and pondering these great mysteries that unite us to God is an unfinished one. Most of us are not studying the faith formally, but frequently, we should make time to study the Scriptures and the Catechism. In fact, the Catechism gives mystagogical teaching on each of the sacraments: see for example, the teaching on Baptism in CCC 1234-1245. Let us ponder deeply these mysteries, so that our minds might be renewed in them!

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