Understanding, making and keeping promises

David B. Batchelder has a fine article in the current issue of Worship, Vol. 81, no. 5, pp 409-425. As telling for a Roman Catholic audience as for his own Presbyterian congregation. Batchelder's essay, Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep raises a number of issues but here I will focus on the notion of promises made that we don't really mean or intend to keep.

Batchelder points to the renunciation of evil and sin in the adult baptismal rite which is reprised in the renewal of baptismal promises in our rite of baptism for infants. People who have participated in a Roman Catholic baptism at the Easter Vigil, at Sunday eucharist or in a liturgy of baptism on a Sunday afternoon will be familiar with this wording for the renunciations:
- Do you reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God's children?
- Do you reject the glamor of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?

- Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?
Here's how Batchelder describes the dilemma these questions present. After using these renewed rites for decades.
(W)hat is the fruit born from this enlarged meaning of Christian initiation? Does the evidence show that the baptized and baptizing community is renouncing sin and evil or participating in it? I worry that our communities have learned to practice a way of speaking ritually that not only permits false witness at the font, but establishes it as the norm. We make claims concerning sin and evil but often live as if we have not really considered the implications. Sometimes I wonder whether the church believes there are any serious implications at all. Ritual practice can give the appearance that accountability is fulfilled simply by one's participation in the rites with the moral weight residing in the rhetoric. Or to say it another way, the ethical responsibility of baptismal vows seems more associated with strong ritual language that, paradoxically, absolves the community from the cross rather than obligates it to the cross. As a result, ritual performance at the font is in danger of becoming a scandal of saying what we really do not mean. (p. 411)
Batchelder develops this question historically, theologically, liturgically and in terms of contemporary culture. I commend the article for your consideration and study. Here, I would like to play out his essay's title question and ask if there are other moments in the liturgical life of the church when people are invited to make promises they don't intend to keep.

• At the baptismal rite for infants, before the renunciations, we tell parents, You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him/her in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him/her up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. And then we ask, Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking? Following a renewal of their own baptismal promises, we then ask the parents and godparents,
Is it your will that (your child) should be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?

In many situations, we are asking this question of parents who, after a relatively brief baptismal preparation program, do not clearly understand what they are undertaking, have not been present to the worshiping assembly for years and may not return again until next Christmas or Easter - or not until their newly baptized is ready to receive first communion. Yet they testify before God and the church that they understand what they are undertaking and will be faithful to the task. The same is often true of the godparents.

• Fast forward about 7 years and those baptized infants are preparing to receive communion for the first time which means they are preparing to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time, too. In many communities, the children's instruction for reconciliation will come largely through a home-based component of the parish faith formation program. Parents will prepare their children to receive a sacrament which they themselves have often not frequented for several decades and which, they may report at parent meetings, they no longer believe to be helpful or necessary. No promises involved here, but there is that same dynamic of speaking words and leading others (children) to ritual acts which lack congruence with faith as practiced and life as lived.

•Fast forward again and you will meet confirmation candidates in their second year of high school who are corralled into a penance service on a confirmation retreat. More often than not, this will be only the second confession of their life thus far. But that's not the sadder part. A month or so later many of these adolescents will stand before God, the bishop and the church and they will -you guessed it- renew their baptismal promises, including the renunciation of sin and evil. One might more easily believe that these young candidates were serious about what they renounce and the promises they renew were it not for the reality that so many confirmandi understand the celebration of confirmation as their graduation from faith formation and the liturgical life of the church.

Perhaps the greatest promises the church invites people to make which they do not intend to keep are the promises of marriage. In the first of a collection of essays he edited (Marriage Among Christians: a curious tradition, Ave Maria Press 1977) James T. Burtchaell wrote:

Part of today's confusion regarding matrimony comes from the fact that so many wedding rituals deceive... Men and women, through one formulary or another, are led by judges and ministers into promises they may not really mean. They are being made to say that they bind themselves solemnly by oath to one another for life. Yet neither the State nor their Church nor their society nor the couple themselves has any such understanding of what is being promised. What is really meant is that a many and woman will remain faithful as husband and wife as long as it pleases them to do so, and that they expect, but do not pledge, that their union will last until death... They regard their marriage as a public declaration of a joyful compatibility they hope will endure; they do not give themselves to one another irrevocably in such a way as to expect that there will be seasons when both joy and compatibility seem lost in the fog and clouds, and promise that even then they will sail on. (p. 22)
The stakes in the promises of marriage are so high and the consequences of unkept promises here can be tragically devastating to so many. As in the situations noted above, we need to ask what we are doing when we stand as witness to promises made by those who do not clearly understand nor truly intend to keep the promises they make.

Annie Dillard "clearly understands" the depths of this dilemma:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

- Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk

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