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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Echoes of Exodus in the Land of the Gerasenes

Mark 5:1-17

In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus invades enemy territory and defeats a powerful army to deliver people from bondage.

Jesus enters enemy territory in two ways. The land of the Gerasenes was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was part of the Greco-Roman region known as the Decapolis, or “ten towns.” It was Gentile territory, the land of foreign gods, a place of idolatry. Additionally, the encounter takes place among the tombs, an earthly realm of the dead, so to speak. Here, then, Jesus faced two of God’s enemies: hostile spiritual powers and death itself.

Unsurprisingly in such a place, Jesus finds a man possessed by unclean spirits. The man howled day and night and cut himself with stones. His fellow citizens tried to restrain him in chains – a horrible way to treat mental illness, by the way – but he always broke free. In Mark’s thinking, the man’s extraordinary strength is evidence of supernatural bondage. The man could break his earthly chains; he could not break his spiritual ones.

When Jesus asked the man’s name – always a good way to start a conversation – the demons replied, “We are ‘Legion’, for we are many.” A legion is a Roman military unit consisting of four to six thousand soldiers. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters see this as coded language referring to a confrontation with the political and military power of Rome. I don’t see anything of that sort in the story.  I’ll take Mark at his word; he’s thinking of an army of demons, not an army of human soldiers.

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Addressing Obstacles to Faith and Holiness

In a recent post on the church’s mission-essential tasks, one of the sub-tasks I listed was this:

Reorient – address obstacles to faith and holiness

I listed this as part of the second mission-essential task:

Integrate Disciples into the Community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

By “addressing obstacles to faith and holiness,” I mean that repentance and liberation from sin characteristic of Wesleyan theology. The church helps its new members begin the process of reorienting their lives away from enslavement to the world, the flesh and the devil toward freedom for joyful Christian holiness.

The early church addressed this aspect of making disciples with its extended catechumenate. Catechumens not only learned the basics of the faith, they were liberated from the power of the world, the flesh and the devil by prayer and exorcism. The church watched over the catechumens in love, encouraging them, exhorting them and holding them accountable for the commitments they were making.

Early Methodism accomplished this same task with its system of classes and bands. Methodists met together in small groups to hold each other accountable to life under the General Rules and to seek perfection in love. They exhorted each other and prayed for each other as they sought to lay aside all known sin.

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