The Redeemed Life

Baptism & Resurrection in the Early Church

The ancient Christian church understood that for believers, resurrected life didn’t start after death; it had already begun. It was not something simply to be anticipated and looked forward to, but to be experienced now. And this belief was reflected chiefly in the church’s early baptismal rites, its celebration of the Eucharist, and its daily prayer—particularly its frequent repetition of the Our Father.

Taking a cue from Paul (Rom 6), the early Christian writers associated this “resurrected” experience with the reception of baptism. Indeed, in the early church it was nearly universally held that baptism was absolutely necessary for the Christian to participate in resurrected life. The chief scriptural anchor here was John 3:5, where Jesus admonishes Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Before they were baptized, candidates were understood to have been hopelessly trapped in an alliance with hell, locked into a covenant with the forces of evil and death. Only baptism could liberate them from their fearsome predicament. Today, many Christians are familiar with this understanding, communicated as it is through catechetical and religious-studies courses. But less well known or understood is the degree to which the early practices for inducting the baptized were rooted in the Judaism of the time.

Today, we regularly think of baptism as the ritual occasion when an infant is given a name. In the ancient church, however, “christening” had a different meaning. It was not primarily about naming someone; it was about inducting them into the resurrected life of Christ. Baptism, in other words, was the cause and ritual celebration of the candidate’s removal from the realm of sin and idolatry. It marked the moment the person was transferred from the realm of Satan and death to the realm of God and life. The previous situation was smashed and ended.

Everything about the early baptismal rite, as well as the intricate rituals leading up to it, was designed to reinforce this message. For example, exorcism, rarely practiced today in connection with baptism—and regarded by some as an exotic (if not embarrassing) relic of the church’s early liturgical practice—was a staple of the rituals that occurred in the week before baptism. In the early church, candidates underwent exorcism in order to begin the cleansing process that would deliver them from the kingdom of sin into the realm of purity. As Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (he lived about 315–86), put it in one of his catechetical instructions, the candidate, anointed with the oil of exorcism and freed through the water of baptism, was now safe. That oil was a “charm to drive away every trace of hostile influence,” he wrote, including “all the invisible powers of the evil one.”

During the baptismal rite itself, every ritual movement was calculated to reinforce the ancient Jewish notion that there are two “ways,” good and evil, and that the candidates were about to reject one and embrace the other. At the Easter vigil, these candidates were asked to abjure their old ways and to renounce Satan. And when doing so, they faced west. (In ancient Christianity, the West, the land of the setting sun, was regarded as a symbol of darkness.) Having completed this renunciation, the candidates then turned toward the East—that is, toward the land of the rising sun, and therefore of light. For Christians in Africa and Europe, to face east also meant turning toward the Holy Land, the place where all the redemptive events of salvation history had taken place.

Other bodily movements, also rich in symbolism, were meant to signify a deep personal change. As Cyril explained, when candidates took off their tunics, this was “an image of putting off the old man with his deeds”—another core Pauline idea (Eph 4:22). At another level, these actions were designed to mirror the cosmic shift that occurred when Christ rose from his grave.

West and East, death and resurrection, slavery and liberation, light and darkness, flesh and spirit, Satan and God: the entire baptismal liturgy was suffused with physical and textual opposites. When Gregory of Nyssa (who died about 385) explained the sacrament in his “On the Baptism of Christ,” he relied on such juxtapositions:

For Thou truly, O Lord, art the pure and eternal fount of goodness, Who justly turned away from us, and in loving kindness had mercy upon us. You hated, and were reconciled; You cursed, and blessed; You banished us from Paradise, and recalled us; You stripped off the fig-tree leaves, an unseemly covering, and put upon us a costly garment; You opened the prison, and released the condemned; You sprinkled us with clean water, and cleansed us from our filthiness.

Before and after the early baptismal liturgy, candidates were instructed that whereas before they had put themselves in league with Satan, now they would stand in covenant with God. Their turning, their revolving, was both a physical and a spiritual revolution. They had been presented with a stark choice: death or life, and whereas once they had chosen to be alienated from God, now they would be united to him forever.

The early church further underlined this dramatic understanding by placing the baptismal ritual at the heart of its yearly liturgical calendar. Following a lengthy period of instruction for catechumens (those who had converted to Christianity but had not yet completed their instruction in Christian doctrine and practice), the ritual began on the Easter vigil and was completed early on Easter Sunday, the day commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus. Again, every movement, every gesture was designed to associate the candidate with Christ, and to initiate the process by which the person, now dead to sin, would be raised to new life. Candidates were fully immersed in water, a symbol of cleansing believed to be sacramentally efficacious for the forgiveness of sins. Immersion also symbolized a candidate’s being covered by the elements of the earth, just as Jesus had been buried in the ground. Candidates were immersed three times, to remind them of Jesus’ three days in the tomb. When they emerged from the water the third time, they had entered the promised land of God’s salvation.

Paul’s theology of baptism and incorporation into the body of Christ are clearly the background here: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?... For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This scriptural passage from Romans (6:3–5), as well as the early church’s understanding of the Exodus from Egypt, were crucial to the development of the church’s early instruction on baptism. Early bishops and teachers regularly drew on Exodus to explain the meaning of baptism, and to link it with the history of Israel. When the candidates for baptism faced west to renounce the world of Satan, they were even commanded to stretch forth their hands. This, Cyril explained, was to recall Moses leading his afflicted people out of Egypt. And the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus, neatly summed up this tradition when he observed that baptism is “the removal of slavery, the loosing of chains.” He added that the baptismal oil functioned in the same way as the blood on the Israelites’ transoms (Exod 12:22–23): it prevented the destroyer from destroying them.

This liberation from the realm of sin was symbolized in another part of the ritual, when the candidates received milk and honey, tokens of liberation and promise. Freed from oppression, the newly baptized now dwelt in the promised land of resurrection. Everything they experienced physically—eating, drinking, moving—was intended to affect them with the memory of salvation and cosmic history, a history into which they had now been graciously integrated.

If the ancient Christian writers used the Exodus to symbolize the liberation achieved in baptism, it was to Genesis that they turned to evoke the experience of resurrected life. Here is Cyril again:

When therefore you renounce Satan, and utterly break your covenant with him, that ancient league with hell [an allusion to Isa 28:15], there is opened to you the paradise of God, which He planted toward the East, where for his transgression our first father was banished and a symbol of this was your turning from west to east, the place of light.

In renouncing Satan and turning toward the Orient, the baptized could experience resurrected life now. It was like nothing so much as life in the Garden before the Fall.

In short, the change wrought by God at baptism was not only a cleansing and the forgiveness of sin, it was the graced candidate’s restoration to the state of perfection, plenitude, and purity, the state enjoyed by Adam and Eve in Eden. This, too, was an idea that received symbolic representation in the baptismal liturgy. The candidates were baptized nude, as a way of representing their enslavement to sin and a symbolic reminder of the primordial couple’s shame. When they emerged from the baptismal pool, they were given white tunics. Their shame wiped away forever, they were now restored to the splendor of life before the Fall, to life in the very presence of God.

In ancient Christianity, it was expected that baptism would have real concrete moral consequences. Put in the language of theology, there existed an intimate connection between sacrament and code, exorcism and ethics. The early Christian writers furnished long lists of the virtues the newly baptized would be expected to practice. The moral life must reflect and reinforce this ritual action of the forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of the soul. As Gregory of Nazianzus noted in an oration to the newly baptized:

You were raised up from your bed, or rather you took up your bed, and publicly acknowledged the benefit. Do not again be thrown upon your bed by sinning, in the evil rest of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. But as you now are, so walk, mindful of the command. Behold you are made whole; sin no more lest a worse thing happen unto you if thou prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth,” as you lay in the tomb; not, however, after four days, but after many days; and you were loosed from the bonds of your shrouds. Do not again become dead, nor live with those who dwell in the tombs; nor bind yourself with the bonds of your own sins; for it is uncertain whether you will rise again from the tomb till the last and universal resurrection, which will bring every work into judgment, not to be healed, but to be judged, and to give account of all which for good or evil it has treasured up.

In Gregory’s eyes, those who emerged from the saving waters were expected to be what they had become. Raised from the dead like Lazarus, they were now to live the life of the resurrected. This life, begun with baptism, would be gained in full at one’s third, or last, birth (the first having been from one’s mother, the second at baptism), when one rises from the ground.

The practice of Jesus, the New Testament Gospels themselves, and the early Christian writings all strongly suggested that the Eucharist in ancient Christianity was expected to supply the believer with a foretaste of this resurrected life. In particular, the Eucharist was seen and experienced as a meal, a feast. This understanding of the Eucharist as an anticipation of the eschatological banquet had its origin in Jesus’ Last Supper. But its roots were also located in the words and images of the Jewish Bible, particularly Isaiah 25:6–8.

The LORD of Hosts will make on this mount
For all the peoples
A banquet of rich viands,
A banquet of choice wines—
Of rich viands seasoned with marrow,
Of choice wines well refined.
And He will destroy on this mount the shroud
That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples
And the covering that is spread
Over all the nations:
He will swallow up death forever.

When Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples in the upper room, he predicted that he would not again partake of such a banquet until they were gathered in the kingdom of God (Luke 22:17–20). Here it is likely he was thinking in terms of the eschatological vision from the book of Isaiah, where the Lord prepares a feast on Mount Zion and death is swallowed up forever. Since the followers of Jesus were steeped in Scripture, they would have understood that the Eucharistic meal was meant to allude to this glorious banquet on Mount Zion. In Isaiah, feasting, the destruction of death, and the enjoyment of everlasting life were all intimately linked. Accordingly, from the beginning the Eucharist had an eschatological dimension. To partake of it was to experience, in part, what resurrected life would consist of.

The Gospels as well as the early Christian writings on the Eucharist inevitably speak of this dimension. A prime example is the Didache. We know almost nothing about the origins of this invaluable document, which was discovered in the late nineteenth century. Our best guess is that it was written between 160 and 180, and that it seems to have been composed in Syria. Purporting to be the “Teaching [Didache] of the Twelve Apostles,” this short treatise offers brief moral, disciplinary, and ritual instruction. It is the first document to refer to the Lord’s Supper as “the Eucharist” (although the verb eucharistein, “to give thanks,” is found in 1 Cor 11:23–25). But what is of even greater interest (aside from the fact that it describes a Eucharistic meal that clearly has Jewish festive meals as its model) is that the Didache establishes a close connection between the Eucharist and the eschatological life:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your Servant; to you be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.

Here the harvesting of the wheat, culminating in the Eucharistic meal, is linked to the ingathering of all of God’s faithful at the end of time. The entire Didache is imbued with apocalyptic fervor and the hope of eschatological completion. It looks forward explicitly to the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, accompanied by his saints. So focused is it on this fulfillment that the Eucharistic prayers it recommends surprisingly contain no reference to Jesus’ Last Supper, the institution narrative, or the words Jesus used to bless the bread and wine. It was banqueting with the risen ones that the author was clearly interested in.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Our Father, central to the prayer life of the early Christian, was also seen as furnishing a foretaste of the resurrected life. As far as we know, there is no direct evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was recited during the Eucharistic liturgy, but the Didache and other early Christian writings indicate that it was an especially important prayer. The baptized were expected to pray it three times a day, with emphasis on its morning and evening recitation. More than any other prayer, it offered a glimpse of the experience of resurrected life.

No early Christian writer gave more eloquent expression to this idea than Origen (who lived about 185 to 254), a prolific Greek father whose commentary, On Prayer, dealt at length with the Our Father. Origen began by observing that all are tyrannized by the ruler of this world. Indeed, the Christian prays for the coming of God’s kingdom precisely because of this ruler’s fearsome tyranny. When God establishes the kingdom in each Christian, that is, when God’s rule and order prevail, the mind and the soul will be ready to practice righteousness. Thus, to address God as “our Father” is to pray that these conditions prevail, and to wrap oneself in God’s immortality and eternal reward.

By transferring allegiances from the ruler of this world to God, by putting on the incorruptible holiness of the Lord, Christians begin to enjoy the gifts of resurrected life now. As Origen observed, “being ruled over by God, we may even now live amid the blessings of regeneration and resurrection” (emphasis added). The point-again a Pauline one—is that, once baptized, the Christian cannot allow sin to continue to rule. The Lord “alone rules over us” now, Origen noted; the Lord walks in us “as in a spiritual garden”—another allusion to Eden and the restoration of primordial bliss as an image of the resurrected life. But only after we transfer our allegiance to God will we enjoy the blessings of the resurrected life here and now. Only then will we be fully regenerated in body and soul.

Thus, for the early Christians, resurrection was both a present reality and a future hope. Baptism and the life of Christian practice already gave them a foretaste of resurrected life. When the newly baptized addressed God as Lord and Father, when they partook of the Eucharistic meal, they already stood positioned between the present life—still struggling against sin and sadness—and future bliss, where every blemish and tear would be wiped away. We are poised there still.


Related: The Paschal Cure, by Robert P. Imbelli

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 

Kevin Madigan is professor of the history of Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School. With Jon Levinson, he is the author of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press).

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