Ancient Christian Baptismal Preparation

I’ve been thinking about Lent and the early Christian practice of preparing catechumens for baptism at Easter. The word “catechumen” itself implies that teaching and learning were part of the process of preparation. The church taught the faith it had received and the catechumens learned. Catechesis is instruction.

Catechumens were also expected to put what they learned into practice. The so-called Apostolic Tradition once attributed to Hippolytus sets out this requirement.

When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work. (20:1)

Along with instruction, the church practiced prayer and fasting as a means of preparation. Circa 155 AD, Justin (called “The Martyr”) wrote this in his First Apology or defense of the Christian faith.

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.

The catechumens fasted and prayed for the remission of their sins, as did the church.

At some point, exorcism also became a formal part of the pre-baptismal ritual.

Then from the time that they are separated from the other catechumens, hands shall be laid upon them daily in exorcism and, as the day of their baptism draws near, the bishop himself shall exorcise each one of them that he may be personally assured of their purity. …. They who are to be baptized shall fast on Friday, and on Saturday the bishop shall assemble them and command them to kneel in prayer. And, laying his hand upon them, he shall exorcise all evil spirits to flee away and never to return; when he has done this he shall breathe in their faces, seal their foreheads, ears and noses, and then raise them up. They shall spend all that night in vigil, listening to reading and instruction. … At the hour set for the baptism the bishop shall give thanks over oil and put it into a vessel: this is called the “oil of thanksgiving”. And he shall take other oil and exorcise it: this is called “the oil of exorcism”. A deacon shall bring the oil of exorcism, and shall stand at the presbyter’s left hand; and another deacon shall take the oil of thanksgiving, and shall stand at the presbyter’s right hand. Then the presbyter, taking hold of each of those about to be baptized, shall command him to renounce,saying: “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy servants and all thy works.” And when he has renounced all these, the presbyter shall anoint him with the oil of exorcism, saying: “Let all spirits depart far from thee.” (Apostolic Tradition)

That baptismal candidates needed to learn Christian teaching and mercy is understandable, as is the need for prayer and a commitment to living a genuine Christian life. This emphasis on exorcism may be surprising to us.

Converts entered the church from a pagan world filled with all sorts of idolatry. Although the idols themselves may be unreal, a real demonic presence lay behind them, or at least that’s what the church believed. New Christians not only needed to learn some Bible stories and how to be nice to the needy, they needed to be liberated from the clutches of Satan. They needed to be set free from those dark and invisible powers that caused so much ruin in individuals and society.

The early church didn’t invent the need for exorcism. Jesus, himself, was an exorcist. Many, if not most, of the miracles he performed were miracles of exorcism. At least that’s how Jesus and the gospel authors saw it, even when it looks like a medical miracle to modern audiences.

Like Jesus, early Christians saw the power of demons at work within their world. One of the earliest formal offices established in the church, along with bishop, elder and deacon, was the office of exorcist. But the early church also recognized that Satan’s power didn’t affect people just here and there, It affected everyone, so everyone entering the church needed a good exorcism. Later theologians would talk about original sin and the bondage of the will. Earlier Christians saw a similar reality in the power of the demonic.

Bringing the whole church into the practices of Lent suggests that the need for turning to God from sin and the Devil doesn’t end at one’s baptism. The prayer for Ash Wednesday invites the congregation to renew its repentance.

The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Maybe we should add, “and renouncing Satan, and all his servants and all his works.”