Something I have only recently become more aware of is how our sacramental rituals contain numerous prayers and litanies for deliverance from sin and the evil influences. The Sacraments of Initiation in particular — Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist — contain some kind of penitential rite before the actual conferral.

Just as Lent, the liturgical season upon us, represents a kind of “spring training” period, preparing us for the extraordinary blessings of Easter, before we can experience the full impact of sacramental grace, a certain house cleaning is in order to prepare the soul anew, to purify our hearts for God’s presence.

An empty stomach is the best table for a well-prepared meal. So also, when it comes to prayer in any form — meditation, contemplation, spiritual reading — it is only with an open, uncluttered mind and heart that we can be ready for the rich banquet God prepares for souls thirsting for his presence. Jesus reveals God’s own thirst for our souls — his invitation to the world-weary woman at the well, his words on the Cross — his passion to make us holy, to prepare us for his redeeming love.

The sacramental life of the Church leads us to holiness by calling us to penance, the rejection of sinful ways and by casting out the powers of the Evil One or, as the older rituals sometimes characterize it, the “mundane” or earthly spirit. Particularly striking is the presence of numerous enunciations in the traditional Rite of Baptism, which I had occasion to celebrate last weekend, at the request of the family of my new grand-niece who had invited me to use the old Latin ritual.

Like many people in my age bracket, I have some recollection of the old pre-Vatican II rites. I seem to recall assisting at a few such Baptisms as an altar server but did not recall how rich they were in blessings and exorcisms prior to the pouring of the water. The Latin rite, in fact, contains no less than (I counted) 11 specific invocations for the renunciation or banishment of Satan and his evil influence from the presence and life of the child about to be baptized.

Prior to the Baptism itself, the right is strikingly penitential, as reflected in the celebrant’s wearing of a violet stole which is exchanged with a white one only just before the water is poured. I could not help but think of Jesus’ own words when, predicting his Passion, he spoke of a “baptism” that he must undergo, clearly making reference to his suffering on the Cross for expiation of our sins (Luke 12:50).

In reviewing the old Latin Baptismal rite, I counted no less than 12 specific invocations for the protection of the child to be baptized from evil, specifically rebuking Satan himself. Words of exorcism — specifically using the command “exorcizo” — are spoken not only over the infant throughout the various stages of preparation, but over the salt, oil and other elements used in the rite.

At the beginning of every Mass, of course, there is ever so brief a penitential rite. “We call to mind our sins …” A too short pause follows. Perhaps it should be longer, to really take the time to bring to mind the broken promises in our spiritual life, the patterns of decay, the self-justifying indulgences, the unpardoned grievances by which we sometimes hold our detractors or those who offend us hostage to our scorn, all of the cumulative lies to ourselves by which we inflate our own egos. This may be difficult to own up to, but the Mass is not a celebration of our virtues but of God’s mercy.

I have noticed in recent years a tendency to make of our sacramental celebrations something of a “feel good” pep rally. This is perhaps unintentional, but it can come across sometimes as more of an affirmation of our own virtues, a compliment on how “we” do our music and our own liturgical creativity.

Funeral rites, in particular, have often taken on the character of the “celebration of the life” of a decedent. There is certainly a time and place for recalling and giving thanks for the good deeds and happy memories of our loved ones, even to eulogize them in a formal way. At Mass, however, we are meant more to pray for the repose of the soul of our deceased friend and to sing the praises of God’s mercy more than their virtue. If we “canonize” someone too soon — even a person with a reputation for holiness — we may be depriving them and others of the opportunity to offer them the prayers they may still need. Something to think about.

God wants all of us to be holy, to become saints. Matthew Kelly, in a recent book of the same title, speaks of “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity.” Suppressing this central message of the Gospel is depriving billions of the joy and happiness they seek. God has a passion for our holiness. The way we receive his sanctifying grace that purifies and transforms us is to acknowledge that we are sinners and in need of his saving help.

The penitential season of Lent is a tremendous opportunity for us to encounter God’s mercy and to grow in holiness. By entering in with minds, hearts and souls acknowledging our need for God’s mercy and trusting in his love which knows no limits, we may come to know more intimately his passion for our holiness. Shedding the shackles of our sin, we come to experience the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God that holiness brings.

 facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd
 @AlbBishopEd