Putting Easter into baptism

by John P. Burgess

Not far from Bonn, Germany — in the village of Schwarzrheindorf — stands one of Germany’s most famous medieval churches. When my wife and I visited several years ago, we stood in silent wonder before the ancient frescos that depict the New Jerusalem. But it was the baptismal font in a side chapel that especially drew my attention. The original had been lost, and in the early 20th century a prominent artist designed a new one. Cast in bronze, the cover depicts the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Small bodies rise out of the molten ground. Faces begin to appear.

Since ancient times, baptism has been associated with resurrection. And because the church’s great celebration of resurrection occurs on Easter, Easter has been an especially important occasion for Christians to remember and celebrate baptism. Today, however, the link between Easter and baptism is no longer apparent to many Presbyterians. And that raises the question whether the link between baptism and resurrection has also been lost to us.

Easter is an appropriate moment for us to ponder again just what the sacrament of baptism is all about. Re-forging a link between baptism, resurrection and Easter could help us understand each with new profundity. All three call us into the new life that we profess in Jesus Christ.

198-06 (p. 10 imagery)Practices of the early church
Scholars have long debated whether the ancient church baptized infants or only adult converts. The Reformers justified infant baptism by drawing a parallel with Israel’s practice of circumcision and by appealing to those passages in Acts that speak of entire households being baptized. But the Bible and other early Christian writings refer explicitly only to adult, not infant baptism.

What we do know is that the ancient church asked adult converts to undergo a long process of preparation for baptism. They were enrolled as “catechumens” in a program of preparation known as the “catechumenate,” which in some parts of the Roman Empire lasted as long as three years. During this time, the catechumens were carefully mentored in the Christian way of life. They learned how to live by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ great love commandment.

It is striking that the catechumens were first asked not to master ideas, but rather to practice the faith. Their first lessons were not in the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ or Jesus’ atoning death. Instead, they learned how to pray, fast and give alms. Participating in worship was especially important, but even here what they received was not so much instruction in what they should believe, but rather in what they were called to do. The second century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr, in one of the earliest descriptions of Christian worship, tells us that a “presiding officer urges and invites us in a discourse to practice the example of virtue” based on the writings that would become the Old and New Testaments. A person learned the faith by living the faith.

According to Justin, the sermon was followed by prayers of the people, after which the catechumens were dismissed. Not until their baptism would they be permitted to remain for the great mysterion (mystery) known as the eucharist. Baptism, also a mysterion, would first join them to the body of Christ, and then the Lord’s Supper would nourish their communion with Christ and one another.

The final and most intensive period of preparation took place during the 40 days of Lent. Now, at last, the catechumens received instruction in the church’s creed (what in the West would eventually become the Apostles’ Creed), even as they intensified their prayers and fasting, as though joining Jesus in the wilderness of trial and temptation until the Holy Spirit descended upon them.

These last days of preparation were also marked by a profound sense of Christian solidarity. The catechumens were not alone, but rather the whole church joined with them in preparing for Easter. Every Christian was remembering that he or she too had once taken this journey from the old life to the new. Those who had already been baptized were preparing to welcome those about to be baptized.

On the eve of Easter, the congregation gathered for a vigil service. Eastern Orthodox churches retain a version of this service (and an ancient Western version has been recovered by some Catholic and Protestant congregations). After the nave was darkened, the clergy led the people in a procession outside and around the church building. When they returned, the nave was ablaze with light. The priest would triumphantly proclaim, “He is risen,” and the choir and people thunderously replied, “He is risen, indeed.” Frenzied joy filled the room. We have reached Easter morning, and Lord’s Day worship began.

In the ancient church, the catechumens were baptized during the first part of this glorious liturgy and then joined the whole congregation in receiving the eucharist. The baptismal liturgy echoed the Easter proclamation. The church declared that in the waters of baptism the catechumens were dying with Christ in order to rise with him. In John Calvin’s words, they were experiencing “mortification and vivification.” They were undergoing a radical transformation, abandoning an old identity and, as Galatians 3:27 says, being clothed in Christ.

Contemporary baptismal practices
This focus on death and new life — on the link between Christ’s resurrection and the believer’s new life in Christ — permeated all aspects of early Christian baptism. While the Reformed practice of sprinkling helps dramatize God’s promise to wash away sins, the ancient ritual of immersion better represents dying and rising. The waters of baptism are threatening and dangerous, but also life-giving. Just as humans are born from the waters of the mother’s womb, in the waters of baptism they undergo a second birth, a birth from above (John 3:7).

The baptismal font in Schwarzrheindorf, like its medieval prototypes, is large enough to immerse an infant — and even today Eastern Orthodox priests typically dunk a baby three times, once for each person of the Trinity. Presbyterians, again, have been more reserved. Calvin urged his churches to avoid turning the sacraments into “theatrical trifles” that simply obscure God’s promises. But Calvin also spoke approvingly of immersion as the church’s ancient practice.

Some medieval baptismal fonts, as in Schwarzrheindorf, were circular, representing the wholeness and perfection that Christ’s resurrection has won for humanity. Other fonts and pools were octagonal. Just as there had been seven days of creation at the beginning of time, God had added an “eighth day” on which Christ’s resurrection had re-created the world. Fonts were frequently covered with designs of beautiful plants or wondrous animals because baptism promised life as it once was in the Garden of Eden or would be in Paradise.

A medieval font in another German town, Jericho, further dramatizes the baptismal passage from death to life. Worshippers enter the Jericho church from the west, the place of the setting sun, thus representing the region of sin and death. When they walk eastward into the nave, they pass first by a huge baptismal font, reminding them of their baptisms. The altar lies still further to the east, the place of the rising sun, symbolizing Christ’s rising from the dead and our resurrection life in him.

In the ancient church, the catechumens removed their clothes and went naked into the waters of baptism. They were casting off their old, sinful selves. When they came out, they were clothed in white gowns. Infants too were baptized in the nude, which is still standard Eastern Orthodox practice today.

In recent decades, Catholics and Protestants have been recovering these ancient practices and symbols — although not baptism in the nude! Some churches have reinstituted an adult catechumenate, with baptism on Easter. The renovated Catholic cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky, has an octagonal baptismal pool with running water at the west end of the nave. The sound and sight of splashing water greet visitors as they enter the church; people dip their fingers into the pool and make the sign of the cross.

Many Presbyterian churches, too, have placed their fonts in more prominent places. In some congregations, pastors lead the prayers of confession of sin and the declaration of pardon from the baptismal font. Rituals of renewing the baptismal covenant have become more frequent, and baptismal liturgies — as in the Book of Common Worship — have become richer in language and symbolism.

Reformed theology of baptism
Nevertheless, when baptism of infants is the rule, as in most Presbyterian congregations today, the ancient emphasis on passing from death to life is less evident. Baptism has become more a friendly family ritual of welcoming a newborn into the community of faith, than a dramatic process of renouncing sin and putting on Christ’s righteousness. The high point seems not to be going “in” and “out” of the waters, but rather processing the infant through the congregation. In effect, Presbyterian infant baptism is scarcely different from a Baptist or Free Church “child dedication.”

Our Reformed tradition has certainly wanted to avoid any suggestion that the baptismal waters have magical properties. Calvin would have worried about the baptismal font in Jericho, which had a plug, so that the priest could drain the water after a baptism and prevent superstitious medieval parishioners from stealing it and using it for medicinal purposes. Baptism does not save a person; rather, salvation is based entirely on what Christ has already done on Good Friday and Easter morning. The size and shape of the font, the amount of water — none of this ultimately matters, if we know that our lives and the lives of our children are in God’s hands.

At the same time, our Reformed tradition has known that human beings live by more than ideas. We are physical beings who respond to sight and sound; smell, taste, and touch. The sacraments engage our senses, such that by means of physical things — water trickling over a body, bread and wine dissolving on a tongue — we are led to spiritual realities. The sacraments have the capacity to strengthen our faith in a way that words alone cannot. Baptism and eucharist can evoke deep emotions, a sense of standing before the living Lord and entering into his resurrection life. And, so, early Christians could receive the eucharist and proclaim, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

What might that mean for baptism? Some thinkers, most famously the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth in the 20th century, have called for doing away with infant baptism altogether. Adult baptism would refocus the church on the dramatic decision for Christ that marks a watershed moment in a person’s life. But such proposals have never gotten much traction in Reformed churches. We are not ready to give up on infant baptism. Nothing else expresses quite so clearly that God has chosen us before we ever thought of choosing God.

What we do need is more Easter in our baptismal theology and practice. The joyous proclamation, “He is risen,” could propel us to declare at the time of a baptism, “This child (or adult) is also risen.” A baptism is not only a time of receiving a person into the community of faith; rather, it is also — and above all — a moment of letting go. We could represent more strongly at the time of a baptism that a child is dying to all human expectations and demands. When an infant’s parents place it in the arms of the church (represented by the pastor), they and the whole church are confessing that this child no longer lives for our fulfillment — or someday its own — but rather to the glory of God.

Easter again confronts us with the drama of death and life: “each in … order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23). And his coming is even now, whenever we baptize in his name and receive his body and blood.

John BurgessJOHN P. BURGESS is the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 2011-12, Burgess and his wife lived in Moscow, Russia, and familiarized themselves with religious developments since the fall of communism.