Context is important. We’ve been over the ground we tread before, regarding the liturgical season and the Letter Paul wrote to the Romans. However, here is something from Dom Prosper Guéranger about the flow this time of year:
It is to the Romans that are addressed today’s inspired instructions of the great apostle. For the reading of these admirable Epistles of St. Paul, the Church, during the Sundays after Pentecost, will follow the order in which they stand in the canon of Scripture: the Epistle to the Romans, the two to the Corinthians, then those to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, will be read to us in their turns. They make up the sublimest correspondence that was ever written—a correspondence where we find Paul’s whole soul, giving us both precept and example how best we may love our Lord. ‘I beseech you,’ so he speaks to his Corinthians, ‘be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ!’
Do I hear an “Amen!”?
The Lesson or Epistle for this upcoming 6th Sunday after Pentecost is from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans 6:3-11 (RSV):
Brethren: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. [For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.] But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
It is interesting that in the Novus Ordo, when this reading falls on a Sunday (once every three years) the experts cut out vv. 5-7, which I put in brackets. I suspect that that was not because of redundancy. They smack of something negative about the human condition. Given the anthropocentric turn of much that the Council produced, that won’t do at all.
This Sunday strongly connects the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. The Eucharistic theme is certainly highlighted in the Gospel from Mark 8, when Christ and the Apostles were outside Jewish territory in the pagan Decapolis, about the miraculous feeding of the 4000 with 7 loaves and 2 fishes.
Paul says that we are baptized “into” Christ. We are, therefore, united with Him. Can we look into this more? The Greek says “ebaptísthemen eis Xristòn… we were baptized into Christ.” Similar is Gal 3:27. That preposition eis can imply a simple relationship or something more profound, such as a deeper entering into or merging. With eis we can understand the bond between a, say, soldier and officer, a slave and master. Also, the verb baptízo surely means “dip” but it can mean “wash, purify.” So we can perhaps be brought up to Christ and, in a relationship with Him, be cleansed. Or, otherwise, we can not only be put into relation with him, but also plunged into Him and so be purified. We are buried and we rise with Him. We are incorporated into Him, submerged as if in some transformational element nebula. 1 Cor 10:2 speaks of a baptism into Moses. Remember how when God’s glory cloud of His presence descended on the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting, Moses emerged so changed by the encounter, his plunge into the transforming nebula, that his face was too bright to look at. How much more is the transformation worked in us from being plunged into Christ, such that we become one with Him in His Mystical Person.
Also, note that phrase in v. 10 “once for all,” the Greek adverb ephápax. Firstly, this could be a reference to the common practice amongst the Jews of frequent ritual bathing in a special pool or mikvah before going to the Temple to offer sacrifice or if they had contact with something ritually “unclean.” That was repeated. What Christ did never needs repetition. We don’t need multiple baptisms, either, because the change worked in us goes to the foundations of our souls, forever changed. Also, the word ephápax is eph+hapax. There is a term in Biblical studies, “hapax legomenon.” Hapax legomena (plural) are words which appear only once in a single work, collection, entire body of an author’s works or even ever in the whole language. They can present challenges for interpretation at times. Examples of hapax legomena are Hebrew gvina or “cheese” in Job 10:10, transumanar in Paradiso 1,70 and honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labors Lost 5,1. In the Letter to the Romans there are 113 hapax legomena.
That image of Mystical Person, by the way, emerges from the Christology of St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) made more current by Pope St. John Paul II in his “theology of the body,” (e.g., Augustinum Hipponensem 3.) though Paul VI had already gone there Indulgentiarum doctrina, n. 5).
What Christ underwent and undergoes, so too we. If Christ had a Passion, we will have a Passion. If Christ had a Resurrection, we too will have a Resurrection. The first way in which this is made real is in Baptism. All of salvation history foreshadowed in the quasi-sacramental uses of water what Christ would do with water, its elevation to be the matter of this cleansing and renovating laver of transformation and salvation. We go down into water as if into death – never mind that today the sacrament is conferred by pouring water or sprinkling water on the skin rather by submersion, it’s all the same. In the beginning of creation the “waters” were chaos and oblivion before the Holy Spirit, the Ruach, moved on them and brought order and purpose. In Baptism non-life, Death, is negated and life is established in the one who is Life (John 14:6).
In the Greek we find an interesting parallel that stresses our intimate engrafting into His Person in regard to His and our being freed from death and, though He was sinless, sin. We read that Christ died once te harmartíai, better to say “for sin” than “to sin” here, to live to God for eternity. Hence, we too die te harmartíai, “to sin,” to live to God forever. Christ died “to” or “for” sin insofar as it was laid on Him for His saving mission. We die “for” or “to” sin insofar as we reject any attachment to it. That’s, by the way, a perquisite for gaining a plenary indulgence.
It must be possible to have no attachment to sin, even venial, otherwise the Church would not require it of us to gain the plenary indulgence. It must be possible and not just for an “elite.” Whenever you hear some smarmy churchman say something along the lines of or implying that living a virtuous life is a nearly impossible “ideal,” let your alarm bells ring and be on your guard. When they say that we shouldn’t set up difficult “ideals” for people to live up to, that their circumstances are too difficult, you are probably dealing with a modernist who might not have a well-grounded belief in God. They certainly, in their faux-mercy, don’t have a regard for the eternal salvation of souls.
The Gospel was about the miraculous feeding of the people in the wilderness. For that to happen, someone let go of the small loaves and fishes. God can do miraculous things, not proportionate to mere human effort or material foundation. Letting go of the “old man” – so small when you come to think about it – in baptism produces supernatural effects. In union with the Lord, things multiply to the benefit of multitudes. Grace perfects human nature through the unification of the baptized with and in the Lord. We remain what we were, but we are made so much more because of Him. Never place obstacles for what the Lord might be wanting to do through little you. That master of the semicolon Pius Parsch, commenting on this Sunday, said:
To put it concretely: through baptism I became a hand of Christ. The hand partakes in all that concerns the person of whom it is a member. If the person is rich, the hand will be soft and smooth; if the person is poor, the hand will be rough and calloused. Visualize the hand of Christ. It worked wonders. Upon the Cross it was pierced; it was placed in a grave; at the resurrection its scars shone brightly; at the ascension it entered heaven’s glory. Now at baptism you became a hand of Christ; therefore you are reliving all that Christ did and suffered… And as Christ dies now no more, so also you are dead to sin, alive always to God.