The 1971 edition of Edward Yarnold's The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation was one of the most influential books I read in seminary. It opened my eyes to the patristic literature on Christian initiation and inspired me to read more. Available now in a second edition (1994), it may cast its spell on others.
The overall plan is simple. Yarnold presents baptismal homilies from four great church fathers of the late fourth century: Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Antioch, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The author creates headings, subdivisions, footnotes, and introductions. Prefatory chapters summarize the ceremonies of initiation. The table of contents misleadingly details only Yarnold's introductory material, squeezing the fathers at its end. However, they comprise 70% of the book.
I lack the temerity to critique the homilies. If Cyril, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Theodore wallow too much in allegory, think St. Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, misrepresent the biology of human reproduction, and oversimplify their Christology, who am I to complain? These homilies open the treasure chest of the catechumenate's golden age--the mystery of ritual, the wonder of catechesis. Yarnold's footnotes will satisfy the inquisitive reader. (Thanks to Liturgical Press for printing them on each page and not at the end.) His introductory sketches of the theologians and their communities are readable and informative.
The prefatory chapters show weaknesses. The first edition, published the same year as the Roman Church's Ordo initiationis christianorum adultorum, presaged the popularity of the catechumenate, but could not precisely link the ancient texts to the modern ritual. The revised first chapter attempts this, but with mixed results. It frames the fourth century initiation rites in the terminology and outline of the modern catechumenate. Of course, they don't quite fit. The headings suggest an annotated modern ritual text, but they deliver a conflation of early initiation rites under modern headings. Disturbing anachronisms result in terms like "steps and periods," "confirmation", "Liturgy of the Word," "Mass of the Catechumens," etc. Conversely, when describing the contemporary liturgy, Yarnold employs terms our liturgical books have abandoned: "Low Sunday," "Canon", "offertory procession," "Post-communion", etc. Such muddled terms (e.g. "offertory", pp. 41f) impair the reader's ability to evaluate texts ancient and modern. And would somebody please put the acronym "RCIA" out of its misery? Inexpressive within the church, obfuscating without, it soils the subtitle to this fine book. These are awe-inspiring rites, not trivialized rites. Chapter two provocatively ponders the influence of mystery religions on early Christian initiation practices, but we're left with more question than answer.
Some inaccuracies surface. The author says the modern scrutinies are something that candidates do to themselves (11); the texts name the Holy Spirit as protagonist. He also claims we anoint with chrism twice at the Easter Vigil (21f), but the Roman liturgy calls for it once.
Which brings us to confirmation. With material new to this edition, Yarnold bravely wades into this great theological tarpit, hoping to clarify the meaning of confirmation for the reader (34ff). However, he cites the Rite of Confirmation (2) instead of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (215). He imports the documentation on delayed confirmation to explain initiatory confirmation. He argues that confirmation completes initiation, a phrase that will not die in spite of a baptismal Eucharist.
The second edition still shares some problems with the first. The language remains gender exclusive. (OK, on p. 66 he's changed "Men" to "People" for the new edition.) Patristic references cling to Migne, although critical editions have improved since the mid-nineteenth century. But Yarnold now recommends a better edition of the Gelasian sacramentary, curiously attentive references to Zeno of Verona and the Life of Constantine, and welcome allusions to E. C. Whitaker's Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy.
Those familiar with the first edition may desire more homilies, but they won't miss the discarded appendices. (Hippolytus and the Rite of Baptism for Children really do belong in some other book.) They'll find the knotty treatment of anointings more helpfully untangled, and the annoying use of "myrrh" for "myron" or "chrism" laid to rest.
This useful book will make the early initiation rites accessible to the modern reader.
This review first appeared in Worship 69/5 (September 1995):468-470.