Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Here Comes the Water"

Yeah, here comes the water
It comes to wash away the sins of you and I
This time you see
Like holy water
It only burns you faster than you'll ever dry
This time with me

- Velvet Revolver, "Slither," Contraband (RCA, 2004)*

"Every religious festival, any liturgical time," wrote religious scholar Mircea Eliade, "represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, "in the beginning." Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from a temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself. Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable."[1] I thought of this when I prepared a lesson for deacons quorum a couple weeks ago, which was the beginning of July's Come, Follow Me topic "Ordinances and Covenants." In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin (Romans 6:3-7).

Here the act of baptism is explicitly connected to Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Relying on Eliade's understanding of liturgy and its "reactualization of a sacred event," it seems to me that baptism in some sense draws on the past, looks forward to the future, and brings the two into the present. The birth of the new creation (to borrow a prominent theme in the works of N.T. Wright) began with the resurrection of Jesus: the prototype of the new creation; "the last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45). The new creation will be finalized and the entire creation transformed with the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. By being "baptized into [Jesus'] death" and "raised up from the dead" to "newness of life," we participate in and become a part of this new creation: "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). We reactualize the sacred event of Christ's resurrection and, in some sense, actualize the eventual resurrection of all (including our own). We bring the past and future into the baptismal font and there become a part of the new creation ourselves. It is our exodus from the old and deliverance into the new. Just as the deliverance of and covenant with Israel invoked creation imagery, likewise with our deliverance and covenant.

"We are far removed from the days when one’s baptism could be said to be the most momentous event—and perhaps the most dramatic, terrifying, and joyous experience—of one’s life," says Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart.

Most Christians today, at least in the developed world, are baptized in infancy; and even those whose traditions delay the rite until adulthood are, for the most part, children of Christian families and have grown up in the faith, and so their baptisms merely seal and affirm the lives they have always lived. This was obviously not the case, however, for most of the Christians of the earliest centuries; for them, baptism was of an altogether more radical nature. It was understood as nothing less than a total transformation of the person who submitted to it; and as a ritual event, it was certainly understood as being far more than a mere dramaturgical allegory of one’s choice of religious association. To become a Christian was to renounce a very great deal of what one had known and been to that point, in order to be joined to a new reality, the demands of which were absolute; it was to depart from one world, with an irrevocable finality, and to enter another.[2]

Baptism often followed years as a "catechumen, a student of the church's teachings," during which the individual was "receiving instruction, submitting to moral scrutiny, learning to discipline one's will, and gradually becoming accustomed to the practice of the Christian life."[3] But "the most crucial feature of the rite," according to Hart, "...occurred before the catechumen’s descent into the font:

at the bishop’s direction, he or she would turn to face the west (the land of evening, and so symbolically the realm of all darkness, cosmic and spiritual), submit to a rather forcibly phrased exorcism, and then clearly renounce—indeed, revile and, quite literally, spit at—the devil and the devil’s ministers. Then he or she would turn to face the east (the land of morning and of light) to confess total faith in, and promise complete allegiance to, Christ. This was by no means mere ritual spectacle; it was an actual and, so to speak, legally binding transference of fealty from one master to another. Even the physical posture and attitude of the baptizand was charged with a palpable quality of irreverent boldness: pagan temples were as a rule designed with their entrances to the east and their altars at their western ends, while the arrangement of Christian churches was exactly the reverse. In thus turning one’s back upon, rejecting, and abusing the devil, one was also repudiating the gods to whose service one had hitherto been indentured, and was doing so with a kind of triumphant contempt; in confessing Christ, one was entrusting oneself to the invincible conqueror who had defeated death, despoiled hell of its hostages, subdued the “powers of the air,” and been raised up the Lord of history.[4]

It must be remembered that while

the early Christians did indeed regard the gods of the pagan order as false gods, they did not necessarily understand this to mean simply that these gods were unreal; they understood it to mean that the gods were deceivers. Behind the pieties of the pagan world, Christians believed, lurked forces of great cruelty and guile: demons, malign elemental spirits, occult agencies masquerading as divinities, exploiting the human yearning for God, and working to thwart the designs of God, in order to bind humanity in slavery to darkness, ignorance, and death. And to renounce one’s bonds to these beings was an act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated from (in the language of John’s Gospel) “the prince of this world” or (in the somewhat more disturbing language of 2 Corinthians) “the god of this world.” In its fallen state, the cosmos lies under the reign of evil (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to save the world, to lead “captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8), and to overthrow the empire of those “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 2:8, Ephesians 1:21, 3:10) and “rulers on high” (Ephesians 6:12) that have imprisoned creation in corruption and evil. Again, given the perspective of our age, we can scarcely avoid reading such language as mythological, thus reducing its import from cosmic to more personal or political dimensions. In so doing, however, we fail to grasp the scandal and the exhilaration of early Christianity.[5]

These various forces were "not merely earthly princes or empires (though princes and empires served their ends); much less were they vague abstractions; they were, according to Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, the angelic governors of the nations, the celestial “archons,” the often mutinous legions of the air..." With this in mind, we can recognize that "the life of faith was, for the early church, before all else, spiritual warfare, waged between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this fallen world, and every Christian on the day of his or her baptism had been conscripted into that struggle, on the side of Christ."[6] And while this view may seem to us "either touchingly quaint or savagely superstitious (depending on the degree to which we deceive ourselves that our vision of reality surpasses all others in sanity), we should recall that, in late antiquity, practically no one doubted that there was a sacral order to the world, or that the social, the political, the cosmic, and the religious realms of human existence were always inextricably involved with one another. Every state was also a cult, or a plurality of cults; society was a religious dispensation; the celestial and political orders belonged to a single continuum; and one’s allegiance to one’s gods was also one’s loyalty to one’s nation, people, masters, and monarchs."[7]

While I'm wary of jumping on the kind of "Jesus was a rebel" bandwagon (sheer badassedness should not be an end in itself), the radical nature of ordinances and what they represent are nonetheless often lost of modern participants. Waking up to what they've covenanted to do can hardly be a bad thing. 

*This live version is actually Slash feat. Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators in honor of the fact that I just saw them in Dallas this past week.

1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Hartcourt, 1987 [1957]), 68-69.

2. David B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 111. 

3. Ibid., 112.

4. Ibid., 113.

5. Ibid., 113-114.

6. Ibid., 114.

7. Ibid.

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