Waters of death and rebirth

by
18 April 2019

Easter and baptism have been linked closely since the earliest days of the Church. Cally Hammond reflects on the theology, history, and practice

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16th-century Baptism of Christ

16th-century Baptism of Christ

WHEN Christianity was a young religion, it had not yet developed all the complex rituals and festivals that we know today. Baptism and the pascha (Easter), though, were fundamental from the beginning.

It is not always easy to get answers to our questions about them, because they were both regarded as holy mysteries, only for initiates (those who had themselves been baptised). Christians were cautious about committing such sacred mysteries to writing.

Baptism and Easter were both outworkings of the “Christ-event” that shapes the New Testament; but, as with much else, the first Christians quarried the Old Testament for parallels and clues to the meaning of both. They found the main key in Exodus 12 (the Lord’s pesach, or Passover); 13 (the exodus-journey); and 14 (the crossing of the Red Sea and emergence into freedom). This is one reason that baptism and Easter are so closely associated in Christian thinking right from the start.

The sacrament of baptism and the celebration of Easter are, in one key way, alike. Each is first an event and then a process. Easter is the once-for-all moment of the Lord’s resurrection; baptism is the once-for-always moment of incorporation into the body of Christ.

But Easter is also the lived, repeated experience of generations of Christians. They follow the ministry, Passion, crucifixion, and resurrection with their imaginations, with their prayers — and, sometimes, with their lives. And baptism marks the beginning of a process of sanctification (in one view), or resisting sin (in another); it is a preparation as well as a conclusion, for those who make a commitment to “fighting the good fight”.

 

THIS, you might say, is the theological angle on how baptism and Easter go together. It is how we find meaning in the once-for-all events, and in the repeated processes. But, because Christianity is a historical faith, theological interpretation has to grow out of historical events.

And that is another way of saying that we understand the meaning in things only because those things first happened. And that, in turn, is a convoluted way of saying that religion is not something that happens in our minds or our imaginations: it is real. Baptism makes a real difference to our lives and deaths; and Easter makes a real difference to the whole human race, because, as the writer of 1 Timothy 4.10 puts it, “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.”

This understanding helps us to avoid two extreme positions which are characteristic of certain Christian groups. The first says that everything depends on what we believe and think about baptism, or about Easter. The water is a mere token: it is there to help the simple to understand its real meaning, which is internal, and spiritual. Easter is something that God brought about to prove his power and authenticate his Son’s lordship; but only to be appropriated by those on the inside, the believers.

The second position treats baptism as a magic rite, in which the proper use of physical materials (what a Harry Potter reader might think of as potion ingredients), with the correct use of a verbal formula (“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” being equivalent, more or less, to expelliarmus) can effect a change in reality.

Such a change will happen — indeed, it must happen — regardless of the attendant circumstances, or the character of the person concerned. So Easter transforms human destiny, regardless of whether human individuals know or care. These two extremes frame a range of more moderate understandings, but they are characteristic of many other aspects of Christianity, too.

 

SO WE set baptism and Easter side by side, because Christians have always linked them together like this, from earliest times. In the century or so after Jesus died, baptism is already fully formed, theologically speaking, as it features in early Christian writings. There are four aspects to the meaning of the rite which are present from the beginning, and remain central: remission of sins, redemption from death, new birth, receiving of the Holy Spirit.

All four of these elements still depend on the use of water and the threefold name of God. All four are linked, for their efficacy, to the physical act of washing, but also to the Passion and resurrection of Jesus.

PAThe Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, baptises Fiyinfowwa Babatunde outside York Minster, Easter 2015

The earliest writer to explore this in detail was a lawyer from North Africa, Tertullian (c.160-240). He used the baptism of John to make sense of Christian baptism; for him it was unimportant that Jesus did not himself baptise, because what set Christian baptism apart from the baptism of John was the fact of the Passion and resurrection:

“His disciples used to wash people . . . with a baptism like John’s . . . the only other kind is Christ’s, which came later: and the disciples certainly could not have practised it then, because our Lord’s glory was not yet fulfilled, nor was the efficacy of the washing yet established by his passion and resurrection. Our death could only be annulled by our Lord’s passion; and our life could only be restored by his resurrection.” (On Baptism 11)

 

For Tertullian, the consequence is obvious. Easter is the proper time for baptism because, at Easter, the Passion of Christ found its fulfilment in resurrection, thus giving meaning to the “mystic grave” that the baptised share with Christ.

His view was expanded by a Greek writer of the fourth century, St Basil of Caesarea, who shifted the focus from Passion to resurrection. He argued that, because Easter is a memorial of the resurrection, and baptism is a “power for resurrection,” we should receive the grace of the resurrection on the day of resurrection.

But both had enough realism about their thinking not to let theology dominate practicality. Tertullian went on to say that Pentecost was also a good time for baptism, because both mark the reception of the Holy Spirit. Basil emphasised that there was no wrong time for being baptised: “Every time is the right time for the salvation of baptism — every night, every day, every hour, every moment, however fleeting.”

So the four key elements of baptism are tied to events in the life of Christ: redemption from death, and new birth, are both tied to his resurrection; receiving the Holy Spirit to Pentecost; and remission of sins to the atonement. But these events form a single nexus, and, similarly, the four aspects of baptism cannot be separated from one another.

 

NOT that Christians haven’t tried to. Some emphasise the inherent power of the other elements, in a way that refuses to engage with the part played by Christian nurture and formation in making baptism effective in the life of a growing Christian.

Others emphasise the remission of sins, excluding all else (which reduces Christian baptism to little more than the baptism of John). This results in a theology which empties the baptismal washing of power, and puts the focus on individual moral choice.

Remission of sins is the first thing that most Christians think of today when asked what baptism is for, or what it does. It is also problematic, because baptism has come to be associated with infants, and it feels counter-intuitive to claim that such infants, helpless, entirely without moral responsibility, have any need for such remission of sins.

It is as if Christian baptism had become the architect of its own obfuscation: seeking to act on the highest sacramental view of baptism, early Christians began to baptise infants to ensure their salvation, and protect them from limbo or damnation, regardless of their choices or intentions. This functional view of baptism opened the rite up to criticism that it was a meaningless ritual. It also separated the sacrament of baptism from its proper setting at Easter; so vulnerable were the newborn that baptism must be immediate, lest it come too late.

But there is a way to reclaim the true understanding of baptismal remission of sins: strengthen the association of baptism with the whole of the Easter season, from Easter Day itself right up to Pentecost.

Making the Easter season into the baptism season opens up the mystical death which leads to new birth. It shows how remission of sins can be separated from the narrower realm of personal and intentional wrongdoing, and reach out to encompass the global wrongs in which humankind is helplessly complicit, and which, by reason of the very magnitude of the challenges, makes Christians feel powerless to do good.

Such global pressures and guilts (pollution, global warming, endemic violence, sexual exploitation and inequality, economic injustices, and the like) rank high in the subject-matter of Christian intercessions, but low in the scale of reasonable expectations of resolution. They trouble Christian consciences because, too often, and for too many, “sin” means only “personal sin,” and so has nothing to say to such global wrongs.

 

TO TAKE this reclaiming of past wisdom a stage further, we could also draw on St Ambrose, the bishop who baptised St Augustine. Like Tertullian and Basil, he understood baptism and Easter in the light of the Passion, and interpreted it through the lens of the Exodus.

But he reflected on the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, too. He concluded that the new life wrought in her by the descent of the Holy Spirit was prefigured by the Spirit’s brooding over the face of the waters before creation began; and he found an echo of it in the descent of the Spirit on the baptismal font, bringing about a new birth in the baptised.

This interpretation forms a parallel to “Christ yesterday, today, and for ever” (Hebrews 13.8) for the Holy Spirit; a valuable corrective to comparative neglect of the third person of the Trinity.

But Ambrose turned to another Old Testament book — the Song of Songs — to do justice to the aspect of both these Christian mysteries which perhaps matters most to any Christian who enters upon them. The relationship between Christ and the believer should be a relationship of passionate love, in which Christ, who suffered, died, and rose again for us, looks on the believer and exclaims, “You are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil” (Song of Songs 4.1; Ambrose, On the Mysteries 7.37).

 

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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