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Baptismal Themes of Lent

I was honored to help lead our Lenten Quiet Day at St. Martin's this year. We looked at some baptismal themes found in this penitential season. This is also a theme of my Lenten devotional Waters of Baptism which was incorporated into the talks. Below are the first and third devotions given that day.

Meditation 1: Seeing Our Reflection

I would like to start by reading from a portion of Will Willimon’s book Remember Who You Are, which is a great, little book about baptism.

He begins the book in such a memorable way that it has stuck with me over these many years. Hopefully, it’ll help us as we begin thinking about the ideas of Lent, the catechumenate, and baptism. He begins by inviting us to imagine we are in ancient Rome.

He writes:

It is almost dawn. The streets of the great city are beginning to stir with the first life of a Sunday morning. A vendor trudges through the pre-dawn darkness, making his way down the street to the Forum where he will peddle his wares. On his way, he stumbles on a paving stone and falls before the steps of a large Roman home. He curses Jove as he picks himself up. Brushing off his tunic, in the silence of the deserted street, he hears the faint sound of people singing. He stops and listens, putting his ear to the massive front door of the house. He cannot see anything over the large wall which separates the house from the street, but he can hear singing—singing, at this hour of the day—even though he cannot make out the words.

Probably some late night revelry, some drunken dinner party which has lasted all evening, he thinks to himself.

"The gods make some to eat and drink and feast all night so they can sleep all day. The rest of us poor souls are made only for work," he mutters as he rights his cart and pushes it down the street in darkness.

The vendor could not know that behind the door a feast was beginning rather than ending. Behind the locked door, safe from the intrusion of hostile government authorities, a group of people were gathering to celebrate the secret rites of an illegal religion.

They were Christians, come to celebrate what they called Pascha, Easter, the most joyful day of their joyful faith. Today they would receive new converts into their gathering, receiving them through a strange rite of initiation which they called "baptism.”[1]

This morning, I would like for us all to consider ourselves as catechumens (“hearers”), even for these few short hours we are together.

Baptism has always been a focal point in the Christian life, and not long after the apostles began baptizing people—as Jesus commanded them to do in his Great Commission to them in Matthew 28—the leaders of the church saw fit to add a time of teaching and preparation before the baptismal rite occurred.

This process of preparation became known as the catechumenate.

Depending on the time and place, the catechumenate could at the very least take a few months (the weeks through Lent), but for many in the early church, it could take two to three years.

First, as a new catechumen, you would be required to live out the Gospel. You had to care for the widows and orphans, the least and the lost in the community, just as Jesus commanded. There would be times to fast and pray as well.

After a long period of loving your neighbor, living into the discipline of the faithful, and thus proving that membership into Christ’s Body was not taken lightly, then it was time to read, mark, learn, and inward digest God’s Holy Word with either a leader within the church or with the bishop himself.

Notice the order: first action and then learning. You very well may have lived out the words of Jesus before delving into what he said.

In the scene we just pictured together, the church in Rome had no buildings—vastly different from Rome today. This was still the early days when the faithful gathered in homes. There were no priests, only deacons to help serve the poor, and a wise elder who was the overseer and teacher, known as the bishop.

In some cases, it was the bishop who would give the final lessons before the catechumens were baptized.

And we could assume that at some point the question would be raised by one of the more curious catechumens who would ask, “Why baptism? Why all this fuss about water and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”

The bishop may refer to the Great Commission—Jesus did command his apostles to go out and baptize people—but the bishop may have also quoted a passage from earlier in Matthew’s Gospel when he describes John the Baptizer and what he was up to.

Matthew says this:

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John thus situates his baptism as one of repentance; a way of preparing oneself for something God was about to do. This wouldn’t have been a completely foreign idea to all those who made their way to John for baptism, but it was quite strange for a couple of reasons.

In every Jewish town there would be a communal ritual bath known as a mikvah somewhere in the town where a person could go to be ritually cleansed. There were steps on both sides of this small pool. You walk in a sinner and could out the other side cleansed and purified.

John was taking the idea of the ritual bath and amplifying it, essentially making the whole river his mikvah. What a bold statement that was!

Not only was using a river as a mikvah quite a sight, but it also matters that it’s the Jordan River. It’s the Jordan that the Israelites crossed when they ended their 40 years of wandering. That muddy river was the boundary dividing the “awaiting of the promise” and the “promised fulfilled.”

Simply crossing those ten to twenty feet of the riverbed meant they were now in the land that God had promised to their ancestors. It was a reminder that God was faithful and that on one side you may have been known as former slaves, but on this side of the Jordan, you are inheritors of the lands promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Jordan River held a wealth of memories for people coming to visit John on those shores. They were getting his not-so-subtle point: the Jordan River was a mikvah for the nation. This was not simply about individual baptisms, but a whole people—the collective body of Israel—preparing for their Messiah to arrive.

The second oddity was John’s reason for doing all this. He was an odd bird. The only thing consistent about his appearance, his tone of voice, and even his diet was that they were all a bit strange, a bit stern; something must’ve been off. And yet, people from all over flocked to him. They may have even realized that they needed him.

Though he was far from warm and fuzzy, they longed to hear the tough words he was saying. He was preparing them for what was to come, but the great irony was that he said he wasn’t the one they were waiting for.

The crowds had arrived—they were there for him—but then he’d tell them that he was just the warm-up act—the One coming after him—would blow whatever he said literally out of the water—for the next guy was coming with fire and the Holy Spirit.

John was not calling people to himself. What a strange thing to do when everyone was ready and willing to follow him.

To the curious catechumen, the bishop may have told them this kind of story of John the Baptizer, but then he would make clear: what you are going to receive at the Easter Vigil is not John’s baptism.

John was all about preparing the way for the fiery baptism that Jesus was going to bring about. Repentance has a part to play in Christian baptism, but it is not a baptism of repentance, per se.

When the Apostle Paul heard the Ephesians say that they had received John’s baptism he quickly baptized them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism is different (Acts 19).

This is where the process of the catechumenate comes back into view, and so do the values of the Lenten season. We Christians know repentance is good for the soul. We do it every time we worship together. When you think about it, it’s a very odd thing to do (in line with the oddity of John the Baptist).

But we, like those who traveled miles to hear John on the banks of the Jordan, we know we need repentance to be a part of our walk with God. If not, the sins continue to pile up and so do the guilt and shame. For the more neurotic sinners, they likely kept going in and out of the town’s mikvah, realizing by the time they got out that they had sinned yet again.

It is a vicious cycle.

Just this past week I was talking to a clergy friend of mine who said that Augustine’s idea of original sin is one of the most liberating aspects of Christian theology. It shows us that we’re not okay. We are capable of terrible things, and there is no amount of “doing better” that will get us out of this mess. We need someone to save us for we cannot save ourselves. That fact, when Jesus is added to the picture, can be the most freeing part of the gospel.

People flocked to the Jordan River to be reminded who they were without God in their lives, and even with God in their lives, they needed God to come quickly and save them…not only from the Romans or the Zealots or the Pharisees…but from themselves.

As the great 20th-century author G.K. Chesterton said, “What is wrong with the world? I am.” Or as the 21st philosopher Taylor Swift has said, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me.”

John’s baptism gets us honest about ourselves and our place in the world (something we desperately need). But Jesus’ baptism opens up a whole other realm of possibilities—one where self-reflection turns into transformation—for the believer literally puts on Christ himself.

As honorary catechumens this morning, I think it’s worth reflecting on the nature of repentance. What value does it bring to our lives to be honest about ourselves, our brokenness, and what does it ultimately point us toward? Would you have gone to see John the Baptist? What about him and his message would’ve drawn you to the banks of the Jordan? What would’ve kept you at home instead?

Meditation 3: Rising

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[2] It’s a powerful quote from a man that died at the hands of the Nazis just days before his prison was liberated.

It’s a powerful message in the things we’ve been considering over the past few hours as well. But Bonhoeffer would agree that when Christ calls us to die, we are not left dead. It is through Jesus’ death, and our linking to that death in our baptism that we are offered life. Not a life like the one we had before but something inextricably new. 

We might say that we have been given an advance (a pledge) for what we will inherent in the age to come. The Eucharist at its core points us to the eternal feast that is happening at this very moment with saints and angels and will come to its full fruition when heaven and earth meet as Revelation 21 foretells.

Lazarus was given an advance of sorts as well.

Have you ever wondered what Lazarus died from (the first time at least)? I’ve always imagined he was around Jesus’ age, and so his passing was a shock to those around him.

There’s no textual evidence for that, but his sisters’ reaction when Jesus finally arrives in town at least points to Lazarus not dying at a ripe old age. He seemed it appears, to have left this world too soon…and Jesus apparently agreed.

What happened next was a rebirth in the most biblical proportions. If only old Nicodemus had been in Bethany that day, he would’ve finally come to realize what Jesus meant when he said we must all be born again.

It was indeed not the will of the flesh or the will of man but the will of God that brings forth the new life that is graciously given by God himself to his creation.

When Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” All of creation must’ve perked up, realizing that tone of voice had not been used since God said, “Let there be light,” in the beginning.

Those words spoken by Jesus had the power to raise a dead man in the same way that God’s Logos (his Word) created light in the beginning. Not only did Jesus’ words show that he had the power to create, but also the power to restore and bring new life from death. As the Good Shepherd, he knows his sheep, and he calls them by name.

“Lazarus, my beloved friend, come out of there!”

In John’s Gospel Gospel, this is the seventh and final miracle Jesus performs. It is the climactic moment in his public ministry, foreshadowing what will come. The cosmic powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil are put on notice; they will not reign freely any longer. There is One greater than Death on the scene, and he is the “Strong Man” who has come to take back what is rightfully his and bind up those who have pillaged his home for far too long. He is the true Lord of this world—he is the Lord of life Life.

How did Lazarus live his life after that miraculous moment? We really don’t know, but it’s not hard to imagine what his life could’ve looked like.

In the town of Bethany, he must have been a daily reminder of the power wrought by Jesus’ loving words and mighty deeds. Whenever someone looked at him as he walked past them, they must have thought, “Wow, Jesus loved him so much that he gave him new life.”

Lazarus was a living icon of Jesus’ love.

Baptism is meant to do the same thing for us. It gives us new life (without first having to literally die). In the same way that we die with Christ, being buried in our baptismal waters, we are also raised with him. Again, think of the image of the mikveh—steps that go into the water and steps that go out. You come out different than you went in.

Jesus commanded those around the tomb to unbind Lazarus and let him go. And that really is what life in Christ offers to each of us. By the power of the life-giving God, we are released from the dominion of sin and death, and free to live into the fullness of God’s purposes for us. Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin, and we are called into the newness of life. This is at the heart of baptismal living. Jesus has called each of us by name and said, “Come up and out of those baptismal waters. I have unbound you from your sin” (Waters of Baptism).

It was always God’s intention to clothe humanity with immortality. The fourth-century monk and hymn writer, Ephrem the Syrian claimed that Adam and Eve lost their robe of glory when they sinned in the Garden, but it was God’s intention to give it back to them. Since they had lost it through their own brokenness, God himself would have to be the one to bring it back to them—being both God and human.

Ephrem claimed that Jesus deposited his eternal robe of glory in the baptismal waters of the Jordan so that when we are baptized we are clothed with Christ’s own righteousness. It is a robe that does not fade and it cannot be lost.

If Lazarus was given his life as a sign and symbol of Jesus’ love, we are given Jesus’ personal robe of glory once we leave our baptismal waters.

We have the same opportunity to be a living icon of Jesus’ love just as Lazarus was.

And so, the question for us is, “What then? We have been given this extraordinary gift of new life, of forgiveness, and grace, but what do I do with all of it? How do I actually live out my baptismal calling?”

This is where I have found the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams immensely helpful. He reminds us that Jesus’ incarnation was messy business because it entailed becoming human and entering our messy, broken world.

He then writes:

This suggests that the new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, 'Where might you expect to find the baptized?' one answer is, 'In the neighbourhood of chaos.’ 

It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.

Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus - but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.[3]

My dear fellow catechumens, if you feel that your life is full of chaos, may you be reminded that Jesus doesn’t shy away from it—his life, death, and resurrection were meant to reshape the chaos of this world and pull it into his tender care.

And if you are someone who needs to be reminded of your mission and purpose in this world—it’s this radical call to be the Baptized, to be a disciple of the Risen Lord Jesus, in a world that Jesus loves. It will not be easy, it may even be messy and chaotic, but fear not, Christ is there.

Christ very well may have called us all to come and die, but only so that we may have life abundantly in him.


[1] Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life (1980), pp. 15-16.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone Books, 1995).

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014), 4.

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