Sunday, April 29, 2012

Abusing the Thief

I've been reading up on the topic of Christian initiation. At the moment I am thoroughly enjoying Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West by J.D.C. Fisher (SPCK, 1965). What's great about this book is that he focuses on the liturgical evidence in order to determine what was really going on. He is mostly successful in letting the data speak for itself, without importing a predetermined viewpoint. Senn, in his compendium on Liturgy, tends to mix his Protestant bias (or is it a Kavanagh bias?) into the data. I have found little of that in Fisher's work (which Senn relies on in his own book).

It is amazing how the initiation rite that we identify today as Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist continued in Rome unbroken well into the middle ages. I would also include the historic catechumenate before Baptism, too, since Rome maintained its basic form even after the majority of catechumens transitioned from adults to infants. I was taught in seminary that this disappeared much earlier - that what was medieval was bad, corrupt, and askew. The evidence shows a great deal of consistency in Rome for the first 1000 years regarding the basic structure of initiation.

In Milan, Gaul and Germany, though, something seemed to happen that is hard to account. There is a gap in the data between the patristic age and the medieval age in Milan. At the time of Ambrose there was in Milan a definite baptism-confirmation-eucharist form to the initiation rite (using our modern distinctions for these). This included an anointing after Baptism that was associated with Baptism itself, and a separate anointing associated with the seven-fold grace of the Holy Spirit. 300+ years later in Milan and the surrounding area, from when the next data set is available, the confirmation portion seemed either a) to disappear or b) now to be associated with the unction that immediately followed the actual Baptism or c) both. This practice is also found in various areas of Gaul and Germany about the same time. When Charlemagne tried to have the provinces adopt the practices of Rome, in some of those locations lacking what we might call the Confirmation rite by the bishop, some tacked it on the end - after the newly baptized were communed -- actually an entire week after. Those locales where the "Confirmation rite" was identified now with the anointing after the Baptism by the presbyter seemed not to think anything was missing from their rite. However, at least as regards the data surrounding Milan, it is clear to us something did disappear. This may have happened due to political upheaval, war, bishops becoming corrupt and/or inaccessible, etc. Whatever the reason, enough time elapsed where some locales did not practice a "Confirmation rite" with Baptism distinct from the post-Baptismal anointing.

So of course, when these places are asked to adopt the liturgical practices of Rome, and a greater awareness of the liturgical differences among provinces makes its way around, debate ensues. And of course someone has to play the Thief on the Cross card:

Amalarius admits that he has heard the question asked "whether without the laying on of the bishop's hand a baptized person can possess the kingdom of heaven. The thief who on the cross confessed the Lord, and heard him say, To-day thou shalt be with me in paradise, did not receive the imposition of the hand, although we believe him to have been baptized on the cross in his own blood" (Fisher, p.69)

Why is it that anytime someone wants to escape an established practice the Thief on the Cross is the great proof that fill in the blank is unnecessary for salvation? Good grief this has been going on a long time. Then it was, "Well, the thief didn't receive the imposition of hands (or even anointing with Chrism, for that matter) by a bishop. It must be dispensible." Today it's, "Well, the thief didn't do any good works, but Christ accepted him" (even though he defended Christ against the malefaction of the other thief). Or, "Well, the thief on the cross wasn't baptized" (but we forget today what it means to be baptized in blood). Or, "The thief didn't have to confess his sins, didn't have to receive communion, didn't this, didn't that, etc."

It's amazing how long this sort of faulty logic has been going on.

It is established that the Thief on the Cross had faith, because he showed his faith by his prayer and defense of Christ. It is established that Christ accepted him. These are wonderful, positive, incontrovertible facts. But that does not mean Christ did not give us a Baptism of water and the Spirit. That doesn't mean that Christ didn't give us the remembrance of His Pascha in the Eucharist. That doesn't mean that what the Apostles established on Christ's authority (which authority is that of the Father, for the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Apostles as the Father sent Him) isn't given to us to keep and treasure and receive for our salvation. All it means is that Christ alone is the judge in exceptional situations, and that He accepts repentance. But that does not mean He sanctions negligence. The thief's situation applies to us only when we become like the thief: crucified with Christ, confessing Him before the Church (symbolized by the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Apostle) and the world (symbolized by the other thief, the Pharisees, and the Romans).

If you notice - the thief was not interested in how little he could get by with from Christ. He did not hold back. Though before him hung a dying man seemingly without power or hope, the thief saw the Savior and the coming Kingdom of God and asked to be a part of it. And Christ gave it to him.

What does Christ give us when we ask this of Him? When we do not hold back but become fools in the world and believe and come to Christ, what does Christ give us? He catches us up to the thief, first. He says, take your cross and follow Me. He gives us the cross in Baptism. He gives us death so that we, too, can become citizens of Paradise through rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit. He makes us kings and priests unto our God in His Kingdom. This is what He gave to the thief: Baptism.

But unlike the thief, we are still in the world (though not of the world). The thief's body was buried, his soul passed to rest in Paradise. But you and I have not experienced this yet. We have not suddenly encountered Christ at the eleventh hour and been invited into the vineyard for our denarius. We are called at other times in our life: the ninth, sixth, maybe third or first. And in this, though, Christ does not withhold Paradise from us, but rather seeks to communicate it to us in the Church - the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1). We who are in the world are given the Holy Spirit in the Church, that the Paradise in which the thief was granted to rest at the close of his eleventh hour may rest in our hearts and souls, and transform us into the likeness of our homeland and our King, so that whether we live or die, we are Christ's. Today is the day of salvation, as it was for the thief.

So let us not ask if this or that is really necessary for our salvation. Let's not minimize. Let's not enter this mentality into our discussions about what should or should not be done. Rather rejoice! For in every mystery of the Church we find Christ. Rejoice! Christ is all in all, the Church is His fullness, and we are made one flesh and one blood with Him. All things are new, including us. The thief points us to the fullness that only comes from Christ, and that means for us the thief points us to the Church, and the Church is fullness.

Obviously, in the context of liturgical rites, we wish to be careful not to lose anything that should not be lost. I would assume those in Milan, Gaul, and Germany in the eighth and ninth centuries didn't think they had lost anything. But the answer then and now should not be, "Is it really necessary?" Rather it should be, "Where does this come from? Why haven't we had this before? Does this change transmute the rite into something different? Is this really something different or not? Is Christ magnified? Is love impinged? Are the weak scandalized? And so forth. But let's not ask, "Is this necessary for salvation?" Because this question is Pandora's Box. You cannot just take a peek. Once asked it replicates like a virus. In asking we presume to make relative the active and present eschatological kingdom of Christ in our midst, manipulating and painting it whatever color we wish, whittling it down, deforming it into something else. But really it is not the active and present Kingdom of Christ that we are reducing, reforming, ruining, but it is ourselves.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Ben, this is really outstanding. I think it may be my favorite of all your posts so far.

Dan O'Day said...