Read an Excerpt
Welcome to Anglican Spiritual Traditions
By Vicki K. Black
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 Vicki K. Black
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSetting Out
We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood. (BCP 308)
Once I lay in darkness and in the depths of night and was tossed to and fro in the waves of the turbulent world, uncertain of the correct way to go, ignorant of my true life and a stranger to the light of truth. At that time and on account of the life I then led, it seemed difficult to believe what divine mercy promised for my salvation, namely, that someone could be born again and to a new life by being immersed in the healing water of baptism. It was difficult to believe that though I would remain the same man in bodily form, my heart and mind would be transformed. How was it possible, I thought, that a change could be great enough to strip away in a single moment the innate hardness of our nature? How could the habits acquired over the course of many years disappear, since these are so deeply rooted within us?
These words from a third-century bishop of Carthage give voice to both the hopes and the doubts many modern Christians hold about the power of baptism in our lives. We are told that in the waters of baptism we are born to new life in Jesus Christ, that our sins are forgiven, that we are welcomed into the household of God. And yet many of us do not remember our baptisms as infants, and as adults we, like Cyprian, wonder how a few drops of water could wash away "the innate hardness of our nature" and erase the deeply rooted habits of a lifetime. We also share the questions Cyprian expressed about his experience of God: how do we find the "new life," the healing and wholeness promised in the waters of baptism? How do we know the "correct way to go"? How do we find light in the midst of much that is dark in our world?
For Cyprian, who was baptized as an adult, the grace of baptism itself provided some of the answers to his questions. "After the life-giving water of baptism came to my rescue," he wrote, "and took away the stain of my former years and poured into my cleansed and purified heart the light which comes from above, and after I had drunk in the Heavenly Spirit and was made a new man by a second birth, then amazingly what I had previously doubted became clear to me. What had been hidden was revealed. What had been dark became light. What previously had seemed impossible now seemed possible." In his experience of baptism Cyprian knew that "what was made alive in me by the Holy Spirit was now quickened by God."
While this experience of clarity and hope, faith and light was focused for Cyprian in his moment of baptism, for many of us today these experiences of God are part of the ongoing journey of faith that begins with our baptism but whose meaning is understood only through our daily living within "the household of God." In a modern-day baptismal creed, the Australian priest John Gaden strikes a thoroughly contemporary but similar note in his deeply personal experience of coming to faith in Christ. "What is it that obscures the light in me?" he asks himself.
My failures. Knowing what I should do, the love I should have for people, I just can't rise to it. Other forces seem to tie me down. The darkness is outside and in. But I hate evil. I am against repression, the restrictions that destroy people's lives. I renounce the powers of darkness. I stand looking at the dark, and turn away to face the Light.
Gaden goes on to reflect on the reasons why it is so crucial for him to turn away from his old life and "face the light"—reasons drawn from his reverence for nature, from his experience of human and divine love, and from the gift of community.
The Voice asks, "What do you believe? On what do you stand against the dark?" In springtime, I have seen a daffodil unfold, the pale yellow petals burst from their green sheaths. At the tips of branches I have seen buds, pregnant with life, ready to spring forth. I put my hand to my heart and listen to the dull, pulsating beat driving the blood of life through me. I am alive, I have life. Again, I've looked up and seen a bird drifting in the wind, or at evening sat and watched the sun, a huge red ball, go down upon the sea. So I affirm, this world is good. Despite all the darkness of evil, I belong here. My life is a gracious gift, given me to live. I will be baptized in the name of the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.
But there is more than the living, physical world of beauty. I take my stand on love, the depths of love that forgives and accepts me, love that gives itself for others, love that is stronger than death, the love that I see around me in children, women and men, but most clearly in Jesus. I will be baptized in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
As well as love, I believe in a creative spirit, the enthusiasm of the young with their hopes and dreams, the creativity of artists, writers, musicians, poets. There is a spirit, too, which ties together those with a common purpose, families, groups, the spirit of unity, the spirit of humanity. I will be baptized in the Name of the Holy Spirit.
Like Cyprian, John Gaden also writes of his baptismal cleansing as an overwhelming experience of grace and renewal; for him it was a time of standing at the abyss of the darkness of death, "on the brink of the void of nothingness," and knowing he is alive:
Now I am washed clean. I have stepped out of the bath. I smell with the perfume of fragrant oil. White clothes, clean and fresh, cover me. The dawn is breaking outside, and the first fingers of light spread across the sky. I feel new, made whole. My life has meaning. The darkness has been washed away. I have seen the darkness of death, the gloom of despair. I have stood on the brink of the void of nothingness, but I am alive. Nothing can terrify me now, neither death nor prison, neither earthquake nor sin. I am Christ's and Christ is mine. Nothing can separate me from his life and love. His Spirit is with us, refreshing, comforting, insistently urging us to live.
These experiences of God's grace may sound familiar to you, though you may not have experienced it at the moment of your baptism. Many of us have come to faith in the God who is "insistently urging us to live" by different paths, and we might not describe our experience of or belief about God in exactly the same words as John Gaden or Cyprian. Yet however God has led us toward a life of faith, for most Christians the path generally starts at the door of baptism.
Since we are baptized only once in our lives, and often the rite took place when we were infants, the meaning of our baptism must often be discovered in hindsight. It can seem a daunting task, and we may even wonder why it matters at all. Baptism matters not because we are denied the saving grace of God without it, but because, as one writer has put it, baptism is "the moment when our feet are set on that path." Our baptism makes us part of the church, incorporating us into the body of Christ and endowing us with the Holy Spirit, "which binds us together as the communion of saints." Baptism is thus both the start of a journey, and a moment to which we return as a plumb line and guide throughout our lives. It is a sacrament of identity, the beginning of an ongoing relationship with God in Christ within the Christian community. It is thus an identity we can remember and claim at various times throughout our lives. In this sense, our baptism is always fresh, always contemporary, always open to new and deeper meaning in our lives.
Such opportunities to renew and reclaim our experience of baptism are given to us at every turn in worship: when we stand to reaffirm our faith in God in the words of the creed, when we pray in the midst of the Christian community for those in need, when we confess our sins and return to the God who has forgiven us, when we receive the bread and wine of the eucharist. And as we shall see, that renewal and reclamation of our baptism also extends beyond our worship and into the daily fabric of our lives, as we come to know the power of the Spirit who has been given to us in baptism and abides with us forever. The Anglican spiritual practices of the Christian life we will consider in this book all find their origin and their end in baptism: our beliefs, prayer, and study, our repentance and confession, our loving service to others, our concern for the common good—all are practiced because of our baptism, because we have been given new life as members of the body of Christ. The Christian identity given to us in our baptism compels us to practice the faith that is in us, and leads us through that practice back to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a baptized Christian, a "little Christ."
What Is Baptism?
The shape and meaning of Christian baptism has changed and evolved over the centuries since Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, and its meaning to each of us individually may well change over the course of our lifetime. Baptism is a sacrament with multiple meanings, and whether it is understood in terms of new birth, the forgiveness of sins, dying and rising in Christ, or becoming part of the Christian community, its primary purpose is initiation into a new identity, a new way of being. Baptism is not merely "a rite performed at the beginning of one's Christian life," liturgist Louis Weil reminds us, but instead creates "an abiding context within which we live out the whole of our lives in Christ. Our daily life in Christ is the living out of our baptism, as we grow ever more deeply into our baptismal identity." When we experience grief and loss, for example, our belief in the communion of saints that holds all our souls in this life and the life to come may be our only light in the darkness. When our actions have offended or injured someone we love, the baptismal call to practice repentance and to depend on the forgiveness of sins may bring us steady comfort and a way to repair the relationship. When we witness an occasion in which justice is not served because of prejudice or callous indifference, our efforts to practice fairness and kindness in our everyday lives may make a real difference to others. In these and countless other ways, our baptismal identity shapes and forms our spiritual practice as Christians throughout our lives.
In the New Testament the primary meaning of baptism seems to be the forgiveness of sins, though the baptismal rites and catechetical instruction varied from region to region: as historian Paul Bradshaw has noted, "Jesus apparently did not leave his followers with a fixed set of doctrines but rather with an experience that changed their lives, which they then tried to articulate in their own ways." We thus find that in the New Testament these earliest disciples espoused "not one standard theology of baptism or a systematized explanation of what it means to become a Christian, but a variety of ways of speaking about that experience," with very different images and metaphors used by different writers. For example, John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance, perhaps in the context of Jewish proselyte baptism. While the early Christians abandoned the need for circumcision of Gentile converts, they held on to the practice of baptism as a means of turning from the way of sin and death, and confessing one's faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
The earliest preparation for Christian baptism focused on conversion from Judaism or paganism, with most of the converts being adults or entire households. The language of the baptismal rites spoke of renouncing evil and idolatry, of moving from slavery to sin into the freedom of the children of God, of enlightenment and rebirth, or regeneration. Immersion in cold, "living" water such as a river or lake seemed to be the normal expectation, though the early teaching in the Didache concedes that "if you do not have living water, baptize in other water; if you cannot in cold, then in warm; if you do not have either, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The confession of one's faith was a central part of the rite: the statement of faith known to us today as the Apostles' Creed was originally the threefold baptismal affirmation of one's belief in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
During this early time in the life of the church there were two clear stages in the process of initiation: a period of varying length that focused on the moral dimensions of the gospel as these were expressed in the candidate's life and actions, followed by a brief, formal period of candidacy immediately prior to baptism, in which the candidate was instructed in the Christian faith and life. One early document known as the Apostolic Tradition describes a three-year period of preparation known as the catechumenate, during which one's entire life came under scrutiny and was brought into the light of Christian faith. Sometimes lives were completely disrupted; catechumens had to rethink all aspects of their routines, their relationships, and their daily work. They could not practice occupations that involved immorality or the exercise of force (such as serving in the military), for example, or that were associated with the pagan cults of the Roman empire, whether in political roles or through teaching in schools. The practice of pagan religions affected every aspect of life in Roman society: marriage, family and household, economic and political life. Baptism into the Christian faith could entail a complete and even devastating breaking of ties to one's family and to one's entire past in order to give allegiance to Christ.
As Christianity spread beyond the Jewish community in Palestine throughout the Roman empire, it remained a persecuted sect until 313, when the emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship with his Edict of Milan, which declared "it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best," thus granting tolerance to all religious practices and sects of the empire. As Christians were no longer marginalized, imprisoned, or martyred for their faith, the church began to take root and flourish in Roman society, attracting large numbers of converts. Some of these "newcomers" came for reasons of faith, convinced by the preaching of salvation and new life; some came out of curiosity about this new religion. Others joined the church in order to marry a Christian, seek public office, or gain lucrative financial contracts and business connections.
A newly legalized Christianity had its own challenges and stresses, however, as churches were flooded with adult converts seeking admission, and baptismal preparation could no longer be done as carefully or individually as before. Teaching and preparation for baptism now had to be offered for large groups of candidates with differing backgrounds and varying levels of commitment. During the fourth century, the Easter Vigil became the preferred time for these group baptisms in the church because of its powerful images of death and resurrection. The forty days of fasting prior to baptism created the season of Lent, weeks that preceded the vigil and were an intensive time of final teaching on the creed and Christian faith that culminated in baptism.
The fourth century thus saw a flourishing of catechetical instruction to meet the needs of many different kinds of converts. The sermons of the leading bishops of the time, such as Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom in Antioch, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, give insight into the supreme importance of baptism in the life of the fourth-century church and the reverence in which it was held. "Baptism is a burial and a resurrection," Cyril of Jerusalem told his congregation. "In the same moment you were both dying and being born, and that water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother." In this fundamental human mystery of birth and burial, life and death we experience one of the profound meanings of Christian baptism: the hope that "if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom. 6:5).
Excerpted from Welcome to Anglican Spiritual Traditions by Vicki K. Black Copyright © 2010 by Vicki K. Black. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.