Throughout the world, in the Easter Sunday liturgy, Catholics sing the ancient Sequence, Victimae Paschali Laudes, or as it is known in English, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.” The sequence offers praise to Christ, the Victor over sin and death, beginning with the verse
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
A Lamb the sheep redeems;
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciles sinners to the Father.
God has turned the tables on sin and death: The Victim is the Victor, the Lamb saves the sheep, the Sinless One redeems sinners. All of this is possible because Christ is the God-Man, the one who unites us to God in himself. The work of the Redemption did not begin at Calvary, or even at the Last Supper. No, it began when God became Emmanuel, God-with-us.
With the resurrection, the work of redemption begun in Bethlehem comes to its fruition. By his incarnation, Christ united his divinity to the material stuff of our humanity, so that by this union our material humanity might participate in divine life. By his resurrection, that human life is now transformed into immortality and glory. Moreover, by this union, not only is human nature, human materiality, changed, but all of the material realm is lifted up to a new dignity. Because of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, material things are now capable of being bearers, transmitters of the divine life.
We see this in the Sacraments. Christ gives us grace, that is, a sharing in the divine life, through the material stuff of the sacraments. Christ can do this because he himself is united to the material realm in his body. So Christ has conveyed his life to us through material things like bread, wine, oil, and water. As Catholics, we believe that the sacraments do not merely supply a visible sign for an invisible effect, as if a sacrament were only a concession to our lack of spiritual perception. No, we believe that the sacramental sign actually does, or effects, the work of grace in us. The material stuff of the sacraments is now given divine power and meaning.
This divine power and meaning are brought to bear upon us in the Easter liturgies. On Easter Sunday the faithful renew their baptismal promises, and following that renewal, the priest sprinkles the faithful with water from the newly blessed font. In the blessing of the water, this sprinkling is described as a “memorial of our baptism.” If we think of the word “memorial” as “reminder,” or “memory,” then we will miss the true significance of this sign. This memorial is more than a recollection; it is a making present of the divine reality it signifies. For this is the water of new birth, the water by which we went with Christ into the tomb, and emerge with him to new life. This is the water of the Red Sea, the water of the Jordan, the water by which God saves his people. This sprinkling is a re-affirmation and renewal of the life of Christ given to us in our baptism, and, through the sacramental order, conveys us to the restoration of creation in Paradise.
During the Sprinkling Rite, the choir and people sing:
I saw water flowing from the Temple,
from its right-hand side, alleluia;
and all to whom this water came
were saved and shall say: Alleluia, alleluia.
As Christ hung on the Cross, blood and water poured forth from his side. The early church identified this water with the water of the Jordan, the waters of baptism, and indeed, with the waters of paradise. Water, which gives natural life, through and in Christ becomes the water that gives everlasting life. The water from the Temple flows out and renews all of creation, just as the waters of paradise gave life to creation in its first innocence. The early church saw the water flowing from the Christ-Temple as the fulfillment of the rivers of paradise. Thus, in the art which adorns many of these early churches, such as St. John Lateran or San Clemente in Rome, a prominent feature of them is the depiction of deer drinking from the four rivers of paradise, which water is flowing from Christ’s side, or from the cross, down to water the whole earth. The deer recall Psalm 42, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.” We long for God, and Christ is the one who satisfies that longing. He satisfies it from the renewed waters of paradise, which flow from the side of the Christ-Temple.
The meaning and significance of our feasts is found in the meaning of our liturgical rites. In the liturgy of Easter, the rite of sprinkling is the rite of life renewed. The water of the font, and the water with which we are sprinkled, is the water of the Red Sea, it is the water of the Jordan, it is the water of the restored rivers of paradise. And this is the water into which Christ put his power and grace, through his incarnation, passion, and resurrection. This is the water that satisfies our deepest thirst. This is the water for which we long. All who come to this water and receive of it shall be saved, and shall indeed sing, “Alleluia, alleluia!”
Editor’s note: The lead image is a detail from “Christ on the Cross” painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1520. The image in the text comes from San Clemente in Rome.