January 26 is the feast of St. Titus, one of the few people to have a letter addressed to him contained in the new testament. He was a part time companion of St. Paul, and bishop of Crete. The letter contains the lovely phrase “the cleansing waters of rebirth” (3:5), a reference to baptism. Baptism was a major event for our ancestors in the faith; for most of us, I suspect it is far less dramatic or meaningful. The early Christians had some intriguing insights into their new way of living, based on the revolutionary gospel of the Risen Christ. One especially memorable example of their realisation is the shape of one baptismal pool. The entire ceremony was intriguing, the shape of the pool the most exceptional element.
First of all, they gathered in the dark on the eve of Easter Sunday, preparing for the greatest of Christian festivals. Earlier generations had been baptised in rivers, echoing Jesus’ own baptism in the river Jordan. However, as time passed and numbers grew and rivers near urban centres were less accessible, they began to design pools for baptism. (In time, the pools would give way to baptismal fonts. One fascinating detail about the fonts, which continues to this day, is that many were eight-sided. This echoed the eight people saved in the Ark: Noah, his wife, their three sons and three daughters-in-law (Gen 7:13). They were saved by riding out the flood in the ark; we are saved by being immersed in the waters of baptism.
The candidate for baptism, adult male or female, stripped entirely, even removing any jewellery which may hinder the entire person from being renewed. They were then smeared with oil, over the entire body, not like the daub of oil on the infant’s forehead in our version of the sacrament. This entire body-anointing was similar to the preparation that a fighter makes before engaging with his rival: the oil-smeared body makes it harder for his foe to get any decent purchase on his opponent’s body. And those early Christians certainly thought that, by joining the new movement, among other things they were engaging in battle: against spiritual powers which most definitely have malign effects in the world. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians says clearly that we should prepare for battle (6:11), but when the weapons are listed, physical violence is clearly not what is meant. The “weapons”, enumerated in 6:14-17, include truth, integrity, the shield of faith, and so forth.
Next, the candidate faced west, the region of darkness, symbolised by the setting sun. This dark region they equated with their former ways of living, when they were beholden to the various powers they had formerly worshipped: forces of nature, or the many “gods” they had venerated, and who, they believed, occasionally demanded human sacrifice in order to be propitiated. Facing the dark west, the candidate spat in that direction – a graphic gesture of rejection of all that they had left behind of their former lives.
Then they professed the creed of the new faith, essentially belief in the Trinity, and then they entered the baptismal pool. This part I find the most astonishingly creative aspect of the ceremony, because they had designed the pool in such a way that the candidate, simply by looking at its shape, would understand that they were indeed being “born again”. What was the shape they chose for the pool? They had many choices: it could have been cross-shaped (in memory of the crucifixion of Jesus), or circular (expressing the belief that God’s love is eternal), or triangular (in honour of the Trinity), or many more. They were far more daring: the pool was shaped like a woman’s womb, so that, just as we left our mother’s womb at our first birth, now we would enter and exit the womb of our new mother, the church, and thus be born again. Brilliant.
Having exited the pool, the candidate was clothed in a white garment, a clear symbol of their beginning the new life of purity and truth – but also the life of relentless battle against any anti-human forces. The author of the second letter to Timothy wrote about himself saying “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race to the finish, (2 Tim 4:7). There was no violence involved, of course, just an unremitting commitment to whatever the Christian faith demands. Fighting the good fight in the Ireland of today would include joining the weekly HTL vigil (Hold The Line), a nationwide attempt to bring the real news to people’s attention; organising protests at the horrifying sexualising of our young children; contributing to publications which actively ask the hard questions; and so on.