This is the first of a two-part article.
By Donald Schell
It feels like a new Episcopal church norm or standard may be emerging, making an Easter Vigil part of our Holy Week. I like that. For more than twenty-five years I was pastor of a congregation where the Saturday night Vigil was our biggest liturgy of the whole year and our only Easter celebration. Easter Day we had a picnic.
But often the rediscovery of the vigil brings with it yet another “Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m increasingly uneasy with our attachment to promise making and promise renewing – renewals of baptism covenant, renewals of ordination vows for clergy in Holy Week, anniversary renewals of wedding vows. The passion narratives in Holy Week and the Easter appearances of the Risen Jesus sharpen my worry. Each of the four Gospels tells catastrophic story of promise making and promise breaking - Peter’s vehement promise to stand by Jesus when everyone else abandons him.
The oldest version of Peter’s promise making in Mark’s Gospel has him insisting to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Jesus replies with the haunting prophecy that before the cock begins its pre-dawn crowing Peter will have denied him three times that very night. Resurrection stories in all four gospels attend in some way to Jesus’ mending the fracture of betrayal, folding Peter back into the community. Often the New Testament lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection, displacing the story of Mary Magdalene encounter with the risen Jesus, probably for the sake of telling the story to emphasize the restoration of Peter the to the place among the twelve that his betrayal might seem to have lost him.
To my mind John’s Gospel offers the loveliest of these reconciliation stories by the lakeside in Galilee, almost at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has appeared, shared breakfast with the disciples, and then takes Peter aside and three times (to match the three denials) asks, “do you love me more than these?” and “Do you love me?” Peter, insistent as ever, keeps saying, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time to this insistence, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep” or “feed my lambs.” Loving expressed in doing seems to trump promise making.
Promise making has an odd history in the church’s liturgical evolution. Apparently monastic vows were the first church-acknowledged promises. Wedding vows come some centuries later. The earliest Christian wedding practice followed Judaism, where the sacramental act wasn’t husband and wife making promises, but the priest (or rabbi) praying on behalf of the family and assembly to ask God’s blessing on the couple. Apparently the most ancient ordination rites also were blessings prayed by the bishop without the person who was being ordained offering vows. We certainly know of a number of sainted priests and bishops who tried to refuse ordination in this period and in the end were forcibly ordained against their will – doesn’t sound much like promises were made there. And the baptismal covenant that we’re often repeating now was an addition to baptism with the last round of Prayer Book revision. Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘my baptismal covenant’ or ‘our baptismal covenant,’ I remember Martin Luther’s refuge in times of darkest depression feeling himself besieged by Satan himself (like the line in “A Mighty Fortress,” “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”). Luther’s steady response to facing his demons was to remind himself, “I have been baptized.” He didn’t find direction or comfort in his own promise but in the church’s faithful act and God’s faithfulness.
Actually, of course, most Episcopalians over the age of about thirty-five were baptized without any covenant being uttered, not even on their behalf as babies. It was the revisions leading to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reframed the apparent working of the sacrament around an extended vowing.
So what did these sacraments look like before each, in succeeding centuries was reframed with vows?
Jewish style, they were blessings with a physical, enacted or embodied affirmation:
-a blessing over the water and a sacramental gesture of water and the sign of a cross,
- a blessing over the ordinand and a sacramental gesture of laying on of hands,
- a blessing over the couple and a sacramental gesture of a kiss and exchange of gifts or rings.
I’m not against vowing or promising. I’m often deeply moved to hear a couple make this symmetrical promise each to the other in turn:
“In the name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
In fact I suspect that in the fifteen hundred year history of vow-creep that’s reshaped our ancient sacraments that the marriage vow is the most profound and spacious – it’s simple as unreserved, faithful love until death no matter what.
Baptismal vows and ordination vows for the orders of bishop, deacon and priest all go beyond simplicity to offer a fuller picture of the commitment the candidate is making. It’s not a bad picture they make. All these other vows draw appropriately on the Bible, on tradition, and on experience to sketch that picture, but somehow in the end what more they offer seems less than the stark, lean vows of a wedding.
This time of year with Holy Week, musing about ordination vows and baptismal covenant, I was haunted by the French film, Of Gods and Men, the Trappist monks facing what would be their martyrdom in Algeria. The film retells a real event of 1996 from the accounts of the two surviving brothers of the community, the journals of the martyrs, and the stories of their friends and neighbors in the Muslim village alongside the monastery. Nowhere in the painful, confusing time of choosing to stay and face possible death do the brothers remind one another of their ordination vows.
“Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.”
It’s love that drives them, not keeping their word. Love for Christ, for the brothers in their community, for their Muslim friends in the village. And they don’t stay in order to be martyred, but simply because they come to see staying and facing danger with each other and their neighbors as the only reflection of their love that makes sense.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.