By: Robin Jensen
Countless Christians are familiar with the rite of baptism. But Christian baptism was one of the most complicated of ancient initiation rituals insofar as it served many and varied objectives.
More than representing a simple rite of passage—from outsider to insider—Christians believed that baptism accomplished a variety of transformations in the individuals who received it. Each of these changes was constituted by certain actions, speech, and symbols. It also took place in stages and was profoundly sensory.
In the earliest centuries, once applicants (mostly adults) were received as catechumens (converts under instruction), they commenced a period of formation that might stretch over years. This process included formal enrollment, the assignment of sponsors, regular catechetical lessons, frequent exorcisms and scrutinies, and continuing exclusion from the eucharistic meal. Once they were ready to proceed to the final step, these catechumens were entered into the ranks of those about to be illuminated. At this point they participated in a culminating phase of intense preparation that included bodily disciplines (e.g., fasting, vigils, abstaining from baths and sexual intercourse), and, in the last week, the transmission of the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The ritual that these “competentes” would undergo together normally took place at one of the church’s main feasts (Easter, Pentecost, or Epiphany) and at (more…)
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