By Daniel Martins
While the season of Lent is multifaceted, it can never be fully or properly understood apart from its connection to the sacrament of baptism. Its deepest roots are in its role as a final preparatory runup to the celebration of that sacrament at the Great Vigil of Easter. The Book of Common Prayer’s Invitation to a Holy Lent in the Ash Wednesday liturgy eloquently reminds us of this.
In the Church throughout the world, there are, even now, those who are eagerly anticipating being included among the “offspring of Abraham” in the “Paschal sacrament” on April 7/8 (see the Easter Vigil collect that follows the reading from Genesis 22, BCP p. 289). Those who are baptized according to the 1979 prayer book rite will be prayed for in the Prayers for the Candidates, right after the Baptismal Covenant and before the Thanksgiving over the Water. In my experience, these prayers are often rushed through without close attention. They do not deserve such light treatment. In a concisely elegant way, they chart the course on which the neophytes (a term of art denoting the newly baptized) are being set.
Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death.
Whatever else baptism may be, it is the starting gate of a pilgrimage toward — in the words of the final petition in this series—the “fullness of [God’s] peace and glory.” It would be facile to say simply that the “way of sin and death” is the opposite of the path toward “peace and glory,” so … just head the other direction. In actual experience, the two roads often seem to run parallel to one another, so close that one can virtually step from one to the other without breaking stride or changing direction. The temptation is always there, and sometimes the surface and scenery of the way of sin and death can appear quite attractive. But the two roads manifestly do not lead to the same destination. Our prayer for the newly baptized is that they will be protected from the allures of this “road to perdition.”
Open their hearts to your grace and truth.
Of course, the only way to avoid such allures is to remain grounded in the truth by divine grace. God’s grace goes before a disciple, like a trailblazer clearing brush away with a machete. And this grace is the vehicle of truth — truth about ourselves, truth about the world around us and our place in it, truth about the Ultimate Reality of God, and our accountability to that Reality. But there are competing guides, competing trailblazers, competing tellers of competing “truths.” It’s a challenging world into which we are birthing new disciples of Jesus in the waters of the font. Our prayer for them is that they will be ever open-heartedly receptive to the voice of the one with whom they are being “clothed” in the sacrament of baptism (Gal. 3:27), filtering out all the others.
Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit.
Just a short while after this petition is uttered, it will be echoed and reinforced by the words of the celebrant as the neophyte is anointed with chrism: “N., you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” Close by, the same bell is rung again: “Sustain them, O Lord, with your Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is certainly liberally invoked in the liturgy of Holy Baptism, so we are on solid ground if we trust that the Holy Spirit indeed shows up! Here God’s Spirit is named not only as holy but as life-giving. Anyone who has experienced any of several forms of cardiopulmonary dysfunction values keenly the ability to breathe deeply and clearly. To do so is to have one’s life sustained from one moment to the next. In this petition, we are asking that the newly baptized disciples will be able to take capacious breaths of God’s own Spirit, and thereby be sustained from one moment to the next in their lives of faith.
Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church.
Following Jesus is not a solo endeavor. It’s a group pilgrimage. We walk with all others who have been reborn in baptism and are headed for the “peace and glory” that God holds in store for those who love him. The catechism teaches us that the Church is “the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and all baptized persons are members.” One cannot be connected to the Head without at the same time being connected to the Body. This truth is very often annoying, because, at various times, parts of the Body are capable of making foolish decisions and doing foolish things. Or, the Body may at times want to hold us to account for behavior that we would prefer to think is nobody else’s business. Or, at times, we may not like what the Church teaches, for whatever reason. So we want to head off on our own and just check in directly with Jesus, whether regularly or sporadically, as it seems appropriate, amending the contents of the Christian faith in the likeness of our own ideas and inclinations. But it doesn’t work that way. That’s not how it’s set up, and this petition asks for grace sufficient to the end that the neophytes resist such a temptation.
Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit.
This is an extension of the first and third petitions. One of the features of the “way of sin and death” from which a Christian disciple seeks to be delivered is that it leads to a place where we love only ourselves, and see others as means to the end of self-gratification. This can be fun for a while, but the only thing at the end of this road is … death. Our hope, then, is to “walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). But we cannot do this other than “in the power of the Spirit.” So our prayer here is that those whom we baptize, having opened their hearts to God’s grace and truth, will understand and embrace their call to see Christ in every human being and to therefore love others as they would Christ himself, to know that no other attitude is even plausible, given the state of the world and what God’s designs for it are.
Send them into the world in witness to your love.
This penultimate petition continues with the theme of love, but focuses on the prototype of all love — the love of God for the race of beings created in his image. That love is the foundation for what we call gospel — good news. The second verse of the Advent hymn attributed to St Ambrose, Creator of the Stars of Night, speaks of God’s “sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe.” Such sorrow can only spring from love, and from such love springs God’s action on our behalf in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is this love, manifested in action, to which the “communion of [his] holy Church” bears witness in and to the world. The first disciples of Jesus, even before his passion, were from time to time sent away by him to bear witness to the inbreaking kingdom of God. The new disciples whom we create in baptism are likewise making themselves available to be sent as witness-bearers. Indeed, we pray for as much.
Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.
We began with this very end in mind, and the intervening steps, voiced in our petitions, could lead to no other place. St. Paul writes to the Philippians (4:7) that the peace of God “passes all understanding.” In many ways, peace is the sum of all human aspirations. For what more, actually, can we ask? Our destiny in Christ is to enjoy such peace. True glory belongs ultimately to God alone. But God’s glory is bright enough, and God is generous enough, that there’s plenty for us to share in! Our Lord’s transfiguration is a prefigurement of this shared glory, as the disciples Peter, James, and John basked in the blinding light emanating from Jesus holding discourse with Moses and Elijah. Our prayer for the neophytes is that they be enabled to persevere to the end and know such peace and glory.
My hope is that those who are fortunate enough to be part of a community that is looking forward to one or more baptisms this Easter will offer these petitions with renewed fervor. Like much of the material in our liturgies that is packaged as prayer for the sake of someone else, the Prayers for the Candidates could easily be understood as prayers for all the baptized faithful, prayers for ourselves. We are all tempted daily by the way of sin and death. We all struggle with keeping our hearts constantly open to God’s grace and truth, with submitting to the “discipling discipline” of God’s holy Church, and with loving those whom we find manifestly unlovable. We are timid in our witness to the world into which we have been sent. And we yearn for the peace and glory that is the destiny of all the saints, all the holy people of God.