Throughout the early centuries of the Church, the conversion journey remained centered around baptism. Although the act of baptizing occurred at a fixed point in time (normally on Easter), ones baptism included an extended period of teaching and being mentored beforehand (i.e. catechesis) and often afterward (i.e. mystagogy). One's baptismal preparation normally spanned a fairly long period of time -- up to a full year.
This process of catechesis is commonly referred to as the catechumenate.
As the catechumenate developed and took shape over the first five centuries, there are a number of distinguishing characteristics that stand out in their commonality:
To varying degrees, the role of the “sponsor” was important.
- A screening interview became common prior to admission into the catechumenate in order to assure sincerity.
- An emphasis on the “Two Ways” during pre-baptismal instruction.
- A preference for baptizing in natural or “living” water sources, with exceptions allowed.
- Immersion as the preferred mode, with allowances made for pouring.
- Baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Baptisms are primarily held on Easter/Easter Eve.
- Lent is reserved for final catechesis and preparation for baptism.
- Repeated exorcisms, signing with the cross, and laying on of hands were common for catechumens.
- Catechumens were expected to purify their lives and engage in good deeds within the community.
- An affirmation of faith and renunciation of the devil occurred at the time of baptism.
- Partaking of the Eucharist is reserved for baptized believers only.
- Though sometimes quite brief, after-baptism mystagogy occurred.
Why all this emphasis upon catechesis? The reason strikes at the very heart of the early Church’s approach to mission. As Alan Kreider has observed, “Christians did not offer the world intellectual formulas; they offered a way of life rooted in Christ”("They Alone Know the Right Way to Life" in Ancient Faith for the Church's Future,eds.M.Husbands and J.P. Greenman). And that “way” of life – that process of becoming a Christian – eventually led to baptism, for “in the early church baptism was the culmination of a process of personal salvation”(Webber, Ancient-Future Faith,141-142).
Clearly, becoming a “Christian” in the early centuries of the Church was not the quick, “raise-your-hand-and-say-a-prayer” that has endured in today’s evangelical churches. Prior to 313 A.D., Christianity enjoyed anything but favored status. For many, choosing to become a Christian meant choosing to become a martyr. Simon Chan explains this well: “There were probably not too many “nominal” converts, as we would call them today. Basically, the church was community that defined itself against a hostile world”(Liturgical Theology, 104).
Despite the eventual politicizing of Christianity and liabilities and the negative effect this had on the later catechumenate, it nonetheless serves as a powerful source of inspiration for today’s Church:
The ancient catechumenate poses two distinct challenges to the evangelical church. First, it challenges the notion that conversion involves simply the initial step of “accepting Christ as my personal Savior.” Conversion must be seen as a process rather than merely a crisis event. …Second, through the catechumenate the ancient church inducted new converts into the Christian sacramental universe. The early catechumenate thus challenges evangelicals to rediscover what God’s world is really like and to encounter the mystery of grace in the liturgy.(Chan, Liturgical Theology, 124-125)
[I will be posting more in the coming week, but please feel free to jump right in to the conversation!]