About a month ago, during that long period of very pleasant weather, I decided to do some yard work at the rectory. There were several small projects I wanted to complete; I estimated they would take a total of two or three hours. The weather cooperated, and I got everything done in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, I had not included in my calculations the toll that physical exertion would take on me. Those few, short hours of yard work haunted me for days. I struggled to stand, sit, walk – even to breathe – for the better part of a week. One day, as I sat immobilized in my office, it occurred to me that my distress was a perfect metaphor for sin: it seemed perfectly harmless while I was doing it but caused me deep regret afterward. The appropriate response, I reasoned, was to repent. Therefore, I am heartily sorry for having done yard work, and I resolve not to repeat it and even to avoid the near occasion of yard work in the future. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Today, Easter, the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection, is the commemoration of the new life that God offers us through Baptism. Living the new life of Baptism, however, requires real repentance – the sort of repentance I experienced after having over-indulged in yard work. Real repentance requires one to resolve firmly not to sin again; then, real repentance requires one to fulfill one’s intention to reform. Real repentance leads to the new life of obedience to God’s will. Feigned repentance, on the other hand, leads to an unchanging cycle of repeated sin.
Easter Sunday and the Easter season are filled with reminders of the meaning of Easter, that is, the new life God offers us in Baptism.
In our culture, Easter is characterized by baby bunnies, baby chicks, and hen’s eggs. Originally, these cultural symbols were the equivalent of the infant that is often used in to mark the beginning of a new calendar year. In December of 2020 I saw a cartoon in the newspaper; the infant 2021 was kicking a Covid-carrying old man 2020 out the door. If only that had come to pass. In ancient northern and eastern European cultures, rabbits, chicks, and eggs were pagan fertility symbols that represented the new life offered by springtime after the deprivations of a harsh winter season.
In the Middle Ages, Christian missionaries tried to reinvent those pagan symbols for the purpose of explaining the Gospel message. Using familiar images of new life (bunnies, chicks, and eggs), those Medieval missionaries explained that Baptism into the death of Jesus brings new life to human persons in the way that springtime brings new life to the earth.
Unfortunately, the conversion of those rural pagans was as short-lived as the reinterpretation of their fertility symbols; both reverted quickly to their former ways of life. Our current practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation attests to the ineffectiveness of those Medieval missionaries. The rural pagans who accepted Catholic Baptism were largely unwilling to accept Catholic morality. As a result, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (which had been an occasional practice reserved only for those who committed the most serious sins), had to be reinterpreted as a means to promote incremental conversion of behavior for pagans who were unwilling to give up the theft, dishonesty, and violence of their former lives.
Weirdly, Easter has come to resemble the pagan feasts that lent their symbols of new life to the proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection. Today, Easter is a cyclical celebration much like the cyclical nature of the annual recurrence of springtime. Easter provides a brief season of joy to a world that reverts quickly to an unchanging cycle of sin. This year’s Easter celebration intends to offer us new life – not for a moment but for an eternity. The new life offered by Easter, however, requires the real repentance that chooses to avoid sin.
In a few moments, we will renew the vows of Baptism. These baptismal vows are sacred promises to abandon the old life of sin and accept the new life made possible for us by Jesus’ death. The new life of the resurrection isn’t just wishful thinking – as long as it stands on the foundation of repentance and a radical change in thinking.
By springtime, most people have abandoned and forgotten any New Year’s resolutions they made. This occurs for the simple reason that New Year’s resolutions are intentions to change; rarely do they represent change that has already occurred. Unlike optimistic New Year’s resolutions, the vows of Baptism are intended to represent the changed lives we have already accepted in faith.
Words can’t express adequately the sense of freedom I’ve experienced since I repented of yard work. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a way to bring that sort of freedom to every moment of one’s life? The Good News is that there is a way to live a new life; it is offered to everyone who abandons sin and lives in faith. When we renew the vows of Baptism in a few moments, that new life can be ours if we accept real renewal as a consequence of real repentance.