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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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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The Wedding at Cana

John 2:1-11

Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John takes place at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Although the wedding occurs at the beginning at John’s gospel, it takes place “on the third day,” immediately putting us in mind of post-resurrection realities.

The wedding feast, then, is not just a wedding. As we find in the writings of the prophets and throughout New Testament, marriage is a symbol of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the wedding banquet is a metaphor for the joy of the age to come. For John, the eschatological wedding feast has already begun when Jesus appears on the scene.

So how does one participate in the eschatological banquet with Jesus? As I have written previously, the Gospel of John is the most sacramental of the four gospels. The waters of baptism and the wine of holy communion are both prefigured here. The servants plunge their vessels into the waters of purification and withdraw vessels filled with wine to gladden the heart. Something similar happens to baptized Christians, whose lives are filled with the joy only Christ can give.

Like the wedding feast, the fruit of the vine is a stock image in the prophetic canon. Good wine is both God’s gift to his people and what he looks for from his people. God blesses the land of promise with the fruit of the vine. But Israel is also God’s vineyard; God looks for good wine but too often finds bloodshed. Just as the wine the servants found in their vessels was meant to be shared with all the guests, so the wine of Jesus is not for me alone; it, too, is to be poured out for others. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims that he is the true vine; only those who abide in him bear fruit that glorifies God. And in John 6, we learn that abiding in Jesus is nothing less than eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

The wine that Jesus gives is something new and unexpected in a thousand-year old religion. One typically sees movements filled with inspiration and enthusiasm at their beginnings evolve into staid and stable institutions as they age. Could God have saved the best wine for Israel’s second millennium? Jesus says, “Yes.”

At one level, this is a wonderful story of Jesus’ power and his compassion for a newly married couple about to be greatly embarrassed by a social faux-pas, perhaps engendered by poverty. It’s also the story of Mary’s faith, even when she didn’t fully understand what Jesus was up to. “Do what he says” is good advice for all of us. For John, however, it is also a sign of another banquet, another cleansing and another kind of wine.

A Handful of Baptism of the Lord Posts

Imagining a Different Space for Worship

I envision a worship space that I know I will never see in reality. It’s the product of a number ideas rolling around in my head. Central to my vision is an understanding that worship is a physical act, not just a mental and emotional reality.

Notional-Architecture-for-Worship
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1. In the Eucharist, the baptized join the whole church on earth and the whole host of heaven to sing the song of the seraphim. I take that almost literally. At the table of the Lord, a door opens between heaven and earth so that we can see what Isaiah saw – the Lord, high and lifted up. At the table, we can see what John saw – and the Lamb who was slain at the center of the throne, with all the elders falling on their faces before him.

I envision a worship space that portrays that reality artistically, and which allows Christians to live it kinetically.

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