I attended my very first Easter Vigil Mass this year. It was a beautiful ceremony, one I will never forget. My youngest daughter was a lector and as she read a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans more than a couple tears of pride leaked from my eyes. The rest of my family and dozens of close friends were there with me. From my vantage point, witnessing the mystery unfold from the front row was especially meaningful – the night marked the culmination of six months of study as a catechumen for RCIA, and almost a year’s worth of intense faith formation in other ministries. And, even though the guest of honor was the risen Christ, it was a special night for me. In two hours I would be Catholic.
Ever since my heart was filled with the Holy Spirit at a Christ Renews His Parish retreat weekend a year ago, I had been waiting for this day. The many friends who supported me during this journey had painted pictures in my mind of how I would feel upon my initiation into the Church. They depicted various versions of relief and freedom from sins forgiven, of togetherness with the community, and of elation for having ultimately received Christ through the Holy Eucharist.
Thus, for most of the past year I had eagerly anticipated all these notions. I say “most” because about a month ago I started to get worried. Not worried in the sense that I was making the wrong decision, rather, worried that I wouldn’t feel the way everyone said I would feel. I asked myself, “What will it mean if I am not overcome with emotion when I am baptized and my sins are forgiven? What will it mean if I don’t feel as though I am momentarily in Heaven with Jesus as I receive His body and blood for the first time?” I didn’t know the answers and a sense of panic started to creep in.
Sometimes when I pray, I truly feel as if I’m in the Lord’s presence. But other times I don’t feel that way. “What if this turns out to be one of those other times?” I was beginning to question the strength of my faith. I confided with my good friend, sponsor and Godfather about my feelings and he calmly advised that not everyone is reduced to falling on their knees and bawling when baptized. Nor are they always in some out-of-body state of euphoria when receiving first communion. He said he had faith that I will feel like a new person regardless of how I choose to describe it. He’s a spiritual man and I love him dearly. But, I still worried, “What if I don’t?”
Holy Saturday arrived and I had not yet found the confidence I needed to override my fears. I arrived at church Saturday morning for the Morning of Reflection and rehearsal for the evening’s ceremony. There were three pieces of unfinished RCIA business needing attention, the last of which was the Ephphetha Rite. Father conducted the rite and explained that it is also known as the rite of opening the ears and mouth, that it is to impress upon the elect their need for grace in order that they may hear and profess the word of God. The rite included reading Mark 7:31-37 – The Healing of a Deaf Man:
“(33) …. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; (34) then He looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphetha!” (that is “Be opened!”); (35) And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. (36) He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more He ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it”
Of course, curiosity was killing me. Why would Jesus cure a man’s deafness and dumbness only to order him to not tell anybody? So, I asked Father and he explained that Jesus didn’t want people flocking to him looking for one-sided deals and quick cures. Instead, He wanted some shared responsibility, some skin in the game, in the form of having faith in Him. Jesus understood that people who learned of His healing miracles through hear-say would not have the same understanding and appreciation as would the healed person. In other words, through the depth of one’s faith, people will perceive, realize and accept the grace of God in different ways.
Voila, there was my answer! In that moment I realized I had let the good intentions of others define how I should feel when, in His presence, I offer myself up to Him, He wipes my slate clean of sin, and He offers Himself to me. And, I realized I had forgotten what Paul said in Romans 4:16, “….it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift…”. I had let other people’s feelings become paramount to my own faith, replacing the real reason I was looking forward to this night as much as I’d ever looked forward to anything: to experience Jesus up close and personal, and to tell Him that I love Him with all my heart and I know He loves me with more love than I can ever hope to muster. With twelve hours to spare, I was finally worry free and ready to go.
So, how did I feel and react Saturday night upon being baptized, confirmed and receiving my first communion all at once? Well, so as to not influence others with my feelings, suffice it to say that it was good, very good, slightly different, but better, than I thought it would be, and in a very satisfying way. And, even now, several days later, I am still trying to fathom the overwhelming feelings of happiness, gratitude, freedom, peace, love and community I have had since I became “new”. I should have trusted my Godfather to know what he was talking about. Even more, I should have trusted in the Lord that He would make everything perfect in a way that is perfect just for me.
(The post My First Easter Vigil Mass first appeared in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)