Saturday, January 22, 2005

Thoughts on Baptism, pt I

The Ancient View of the Baptismal Font as Tomb
From the earliest days of Christianity, the rite of Baptism has been viewed in terms of death and re-life. St. Paul writes extensively in the epistles about this concept. The non-canonical book Shepherd of Hermas1 has a vision of of righteous men ascending through the water to be made alive. Origen introduces and modifies this view of death and rebirth through baptism in a unique view of the baptismal font as “tomb” in the 3rd Century.2
To Origen and later church fathers, to view the baptism font like the Tomb
of Christ was essential to understanding the concept and importance of baptism. The catechumens initiation paralleled Christ's passion and death and subsequent resurrection. From descriptions like Cyril of Jerusalem, we learn that those to be baptized were wrapped in white linens as cross was brought down from the cross and put into the water and raised up only as Christ was put into the tomb and resurrected on the third day.3
Clearly, the early church's views on the baptismal font were Christ centered. St. Ambrose summed up the need for a few that the font was the tomb best when he said, “What is water without the cross of Christ? A common element without any sacramental effect.”4 For the early church, Christian initiation was crucial to be viewed as a time when like Christ, we enter our own tomb only to die to sin and be resurrected as new members of the body of Christ.
The font and the water were not just some early Christian razing ritual or coming of age event, it was a merging of ourselves with Christ. To be initiated into the body of Christ through imitating Christ's passion and death ourselves, the catechumens developed a much greater understanding of Christ's sacrifice and what it means to be Christian. To die with Christ and to be resurrected with Christ through the baptismal font is “to be born again from the font, as Christ did by rising again from the tomb,” as St. Augustine states.5

1Hermas, Pastor, Sim. 9:16: 2-4 (1: 608 Funk)
2Origen, In Romanos 5:8 (MG 14: 1040)
3Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses mystagogicae 2: 4 (FP 7: 83 Quasten)
4Ambrose, De Mysteriis 3: 14 (FP 7:142 Quasten)
5Augustine, Enchiridon 42 (ACW 3: 50 tr. Arand.)

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