From the First Epistle of Peter:
Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (2:2)
Let me emphasize three phrases: newborn babes, spiritual milk, tasted the kindness of the Lord.
Today, the Sunday after Easter Sunday, is a day with three names. Two of them I like; one of them I don’t like.
The one I don’t like is this: Low Sunday. I don’t like it, because there are no low Sundays. Every Sunday is a high day, for Sunday itself, the first day of the week, is a commemoration, a celebration, and a participation in Jesus’ rising from the dead. Every Sunday is a little Easter, and there is nothing low about that.
And yet, if you are like me, you are still somewhat exhausted after Holy Week and Easter. It was probably not without some difficulty that you got yourself up out of bed this morning to come to church. And so, there is a psychological truth to the name, Low Sunday. Even so, I don’t see the need to advertise it.
So let’s get rid of Low Sunday and forget the name, for there are two other names for the day and they are good ones. One is fun. The other is serious.
The fun one is this: Quasimodo Sunday. It is taken from the first two words of the Latin Introit for the day. Quasi modo geniti infantes; like newborn babes, as we heard before from St. Peter as this sermon began. And thus, Quasimodo Sunday. I like that, and so also, it seems, did Victor Hugo, for he gave that name to one of his best known characters – the hunchback of Notre Dame – and he did it because of today. I ask you then, did you have any idea, as you arrived this morning, that you were here to celebrate Quasimodo Sunday? Extra credit, if you did.
But, as I said before, there is a third name for today, and this one is serious. In Latin it is Domenica in albis or Domenica in albis deponendis. Translating this into English doesn’t help much, for in English these phrases become The Sunday in Albs, or The Sunday of the Putting off of the Albs, names which are just as puzzling as the Latin. What on earth can they mean? What is an Alb? Why would you put it off?
Well, let me show you. Look at the Sacred Ministers – their white robes are albs – the white garment worn by various ministers of the Mass underneath the fancy stuff. The word is taken from the Latin alba, white. In the early Church, those who were baptized at Easter were clothed in white robes, and they wore them for a week, so that everyone would know who they were. On the Sunday following they wore them still, but after the Mass there was a special service during which the albs were taken off, and one resumed one’s ordinary clothing.
And there was a reason for a this. Remember. It was not easy to become a Christian in the early Church. It was quite rigorous. Often, instruction lasted as long as three years. And when that was over, there was a period of weeks – which later became Lent – which was a time of intense prayer and fasting before Easter, when baptism took place. On the night itself, in the dark, you were stripped naked – like a new born babe – and plunged into a pool of water and baptized, thereby being reborn in Christ. You were then given a light, and you were given milk to drink – again, like a new born babe – and a taste of honey. You put on an alb. You made your first communion. And you wore the alb for a week.
After all that study and rigor and an exhausting ceremony, you were now the toast of the town, and you had the fancy dress to prove it. You were feasted and feted throughout that week following Easter, until the next Sunday when you gathered with the Bishop to remove your alb.
And the Bishop once again gave instruction to those putting off their albs, for now their task, their duty, and their responsibility was to live day to day as Christians. To live out the meaning of their baptism, their new birth, to live in the power of the Resurrection in ordinary life. It’s easy to do this when you are on a high and all dressed up. It’s easy to rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day, but what about a Wednesday in February? For the truth of Christianity, and the proof of baptism’s power is in ordinary life. If Christian faith doesn’t make a difference there, then it doesn’t really make a difference at all.
We have a sermon from one of these alb-putting-off services. It’s called the First Epistle of Peter. Tradition has it – and some scholars agree – that at least part of this was preached to the newly baptized by Peter himself. Preached in order to bring them down to earth, to get them going in the day to day living out of the implications of their baptism.
Go home today and read it with this in mind, and you will notice things that you never did before. It’s wonderful. In it we hear the voice of an old and wise man, Peter, who had seen a lot and done a lot, speaking with gentle encouragement to those who must now begin to live their life in the faith. He tells them:
So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the kindness of the Lord.
Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men, but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (2:1 – 5, 9, 10)