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.

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Exorcism By Prayer and Fasting

There is an interesting textual issue surrounding Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21. When Jesus came down from the mount of transfiguration he found that some of his disciples had unsuccessfully attempted to exorcise a demonic presence from a young boy. After Jesus cast the demon out and healed the boy, Matthew and Mark record that his disciples asked him why they had not been able to drive the demon away.

In the King James Version, Jesus provides this answer:

This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:21)

This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:29)

More recent translations omit “and fasting” from Mark 9:29 and eliminate Matthew 17:21 completely. In Mark, then, “this kind” come out by prayer alone and in Matthew the disciple’s failure is solely a sign of too little faith.

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Schmemann on the Devil, Baptism and Exorcism

I’ve been running across the name of Alexander Schmemann recently, an author with which I was unfamiliar. In a Lenten sermon on Jesus’ temptation, the pastor at the church I visited on the first Sunday of Lent briefly quoted Schmemann when he was discussing the power and reality of evil. I traced the quote to a work from 1974, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. Here is a longer section of that quote from Schmemann’s chapter on baptismal preparation and the Orthodox practice of pre-baptismal exorcism.


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Wesley’s Calendar Had no Lent

Back in 2014, Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote an interesting article about John Wesley’s rejection of the season of Lent. In the prayer book Wesley adapted from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for use among American Methodists, he changed the names of the Sundays in Lent to Sundays after Christmas. Palm Sunday became “the Sunday next before Easter.” Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were completely omitted. The only thing Wesley had to say by way of explanation was this:

Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end.

Burton-Edwards conjectures, and this makes sense to me, that the disciplined Wesleyan way already contained elements of Lent as permanent practices. The General Rules required fasting and deeds of mercy. The bands practiced confession, forgiveness and prayer. Love feasts featured testimonies of lives changed through Christ. Watch nights and covenant renewal services focused on honest self-examination and renewed commitment. He summarizes his point with this:

In short, nearly everything that Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought to do or promote was in fact being accomplished by other means by Methodists on a much more regular and frequent basis, not as a bracketed off ‘special time’ of 40 or so days in the year, but deeply woven into the fabric of their lives throughout the whole year.

These practices are largely absent in the United Methodist Church. If they exist by name, they are vastly different than practiced in 18th century Methodism.

At present, then, we live in a United Methodist context generally devoid of the complementary practices that accomplished everything Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were created for.

Left unsaid is the implication that our church is no longer producing in its members the intended effects of either Lent or Wesleyan Methodism.

Burton-Edwards thinks Wesley may have underestimated the importance of Lent, even for early Methodists. He points out that the General Rules also required society members to attend worship. In England in 1784 that generally meant Anglican worship.

So perhaps John Wesley over-estimated the value and staying power of the Methodist practices apart from the mutual reinforcement they may have received because most early Methodists were also keeping Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday with their fellow Anglicans.

He closes with this observation:

So at present, perhaps we United Methodists may find ourselves actually needing Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday again so the valuable ends they were created for have some way of taking root in our lives. And perhaps, at present, we may also become more diligent about developing such complementary practices, as did our early Methodist forebears, that, if not making Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday answer “no valuable end,” will at least similarly and more richly extend the valuable ends of these days and seasons into daily discipleship and growth in holiness of heart and life.

A Handful of Temptation Posts

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Gospel reading always focuses on Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following Jesus’ baptism by John. Here are links to what I have previously written about the temptation narratives.

Also of relevance: