by Sister Madeleine, O.S.A.
Symbols of Baptism
WHAT excited me most when I visited the catacombs in Rome some years ago was not so much the thought of Christians secretly meeting together in these subterranean corridors but the unequivocal message of hope and joy proclaimed in the crude drawings, frescoes and graffiti on the walls.
I remember seeing numerous times in the catacomb of Callietus the anchor of hope scratched on the walls. Here too is a touchingly childlike drawing of Noah standing in a box and being saved from the waters of death.
Jonah is shown being conveniently hiccupped out of the whale, the three children delivered from the furnace and Susannah from her accusers. Again and again the drawings involve water — Moses in the desert striking the rock for water, the Samaritan woman at the well. Christ standing by the River Jordan.
All of these, of course, are symbols of Baptism — gloriously confident that our God is the God of the living riot of the dead — that he wills us life in abundance. And if we think that such a hope distracts us from living fully in the "now" and radically changing our present world for the better then we ignore the deep and paradoxical meaning of Baptism.
If it tells us on the one hand that dying is about life in the power of God who raised up Jesus, it also tells us that living is about death to the self-interest, the superficiality. the divisiveness and pride that creates not only injustice between individuals but between groups and nations on economic. political and social levels.
The catacomb drawings show us that death ft r the early Christians was, as it were, a second Baptism — a repetition on the physical level of all that is signified sacramentally at Baptism.
And what is signified in Baptism is a moral and psychological and therefore social revolution — a living in Christ's self-renouncement, a transcending of the deathly engulfing waters of egoism and untruth in order to come alive in openness to others, in the love and service that is the mark of God's spirit.
The dead. for the early Christians, were not waiting in the tomb to be awakened by Christ. For if in life they were already "buried" with Christ in a movement analogous to death, then
they already enjoyed "eternal" life, and physical death was something like a crisis in growth, the threshold of their definitive evolution.
Death was a birth. and that is why the death-day of a martyr or saint was called their birthday (dies natalis). That is why, too, the term "rest" (re(iuies) or "sleep' commonly applied by pagans to the dead was transformed by Christians into "peace", the pax that we so often find written or symbolised on the walls of the catacombs.
All of which may help us to see the deep meaningfulness of celebrating one after the other the feasts of All Souls and of Al! Saints. For the liturgy seems to be expressing in the one the negative and in the other the positive aspects of Baptism, of all life in Christ.
The negative is the aspect of purification and therefore of suffering involved by man's encounter with God, by man's endeavour to love his fellow-man as Christ. The positive is the aspect of fulfilment, of abundant life that is consequent upon the communion with God and with each other that is realised in a love as totally self-giving as that of the Lord Jesus. Such a love will be the death — and the life — of us all.