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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Jesus’ Victory over Deprivation, Distrust and Devilish Dominion

In his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations of deprivation, distrust and devilish dominion that stood between him and the completion of his mission.

Deprivation

Jesus and his disciples lived as peripatetic mendicants – wandering beggars – walking from town to town for the sake of the gospel, without money, food, extra clothing or a place to lay their heads. To announce the gospel to the poor, they lived in poverty, depending on the hospitality of sometimes hostile strangers. Humbling themselves to reveal the depths of God’s mercy and compassion, hunger would be their real and constant companion. Jesus and the first disciples not only had to endure deprivation to complete their mission, they also had to resist the temptation to turn away from God’s chosen path in order to please their benefactors. One cannot overestimate the power of hunger, or the lure of comfort and security. When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path with an easy abundance of bread, Jesus turned him away with the power of God’s word.

Distrust

Jesus’ life of vulnerability would ultimately lead him to be crucified for our sake. How could this be? The devil quoted Psalm 91 to Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The Psalmist envisions a God who protects his own and delivers them from death. As Jesus looks forward to walking the way of the cross, he must wrestle with the promise of Psalm 91. Can a God who makes the promises of Psalm 91 allow his chosen one to suffer and die? Can such a God be trusted? Is God’s word in Psalm 91 true, and if so, how can it true be true in the shadow of the cross? “If you are the Son of God, why won’t God protect you?” When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path by planting the seeds of distrust, Jesus again turned him away with the power of God’s word.

Devilish Dominion

Jesus came announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and calling people to repentance. The kingdom’s coming would ultimately depend on Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience, his vulnerable life and sacrificial death. Couldn’t there be an easier way to establish God’s eternal kingdom? “Do you want a kingdom?” the devil asked. “I’ve got lots of them to give you.” The tempter promised Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world”, if Jesus would only worship him. Notably, the devil claims only to offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world; only the Father can promise the kingdom of God. Perhaps the devil expected Jesus literally to bow down and worship at his feet, but Jesus saw the devil in much more subtle temptations. When Peter, for example, suggested that Jesus need not suffer death on a cross, Jesus heard Satan’s voice tempting him to compromise his vocation. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus replied. To achieve a measure of justice among the kingdoms of this world – and to make the best of an impossibly bad situation – it sometimes seems like it is necessary to make a bargain with the devil. The kings of this age rule by the power of the sword, not by the power of the cross. There is no purely just way to achieve a purely just end. The kingdom of God, however, could never come in its perfect fullness and holiness through compromises with evil. Fortunately for us, Jesus eschewed penultimate success for final victory. There was only one route to the kind of triumph Jesus came to achieve. When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path by offering him a different route to kingly rule, Jesus one last time turned him away with the power of God’s word.