Easter – biggest day of their lives
80,000 adults in the United States presented themselves during a single year recently to be baptized (or initiated into the Catholic Church). And this is to say nothing of the number coming forward to join the other Christian communities – or of the numbers coming forward world-wide. Traditionally, Easter was the season for receiving new recruits to Christianity – and, in the early centuries, these would have been mainly adults.
Easter was the season when converts were baptized (or Christ-ened) – and they would have remembered it as the turning-point of their whole life. It was the day when they committed themselves to the life-style mapped out by Jesus Christ – and when they accepted his offer of being able to rise to a new life after death (just as Jesus himself rose at the first Easter).
During the night or pre-dawn ceremony to commemorate Easter, Jesus’ rising from the tomb is represented by a candle lit from a symbolic fire which dispels the darkness. And then an individual candle, itself lit from the Easter candle, is handed to each of these newly-baptized. Often this candle remained in a person’s safe-keeping all through life. And then, as the person lay dying, it was held alight in his or her hand. As the flame of earthly life burned low, the baptismal candle was meant to represent the undying flame of everlasting life – a dying Christian’s passport across the great divide between one life and the next.
Today, when many people’s only experience of baptism is the christening of babies, it is all too easy to regard the ceremony as little more than a social occasion. And even among those aware of the religious significance, the response may sometimes go no further than a vague resolution to “be nice to people”. But when, by contrast, somebody witnesses the full drama of the ceremony as originally intended for adults, he or she is brought slap-bang up against the stark reality of the Christian religion : The essence of this religion is its affirmation that our existence continues on, even after the years of our earthly span have ended.
Any religion does indeed have things to say about right and wrong (ethics). But our Christian religion goes infinitely farther : It actually makes us participators in the undying life of the risen Jesus. For anybody, this is a huge mouthful of belief to ‘swallow’. And there are indeed good people who do have a belief in God – but who still find this additional belief a step too far. (Of course for all of us, the light of belief will tend to burn more brightly at some times than at others).
The full, adult baptismal ceremony is seen at its most dramatic, wherever the person to be baptized is actually led right down into water. This was the original custom – and some catholic churches across the globe are fitted with a baptismal pool even today. The word ‘baptism’ is indeed related to the word ‘bath’ – but there is more involved than just the cleansing of any stains of sin. The person’s whole previous existence first has to “go under”, to be submerged – and only then does she or he rise up out of the water to a new life, to a totally different existence.
In the ancient pagan world, it was thought that the only ‘immortals’ were the gods (that there was no kind of survival after death for anyone else). And so it was that after their baptism the new Christians could cry out in their enthusiasm : “Now we are all gods”.
Eventually, the pagan emperors – fancying themselves – liked to think that they would transcend death and go on forever; and this sort of aspiration and self-styling became tied up with royalty. It was this royal imagery which Christians then took over to express their dignity as a new race having potential which went beyond the merely human.
After baptism, they would deck themselves out in royal robes – not purple or red, but pure white : the most highly-processed fabric of the time. They might even be seen in public in this regal attire – origin of today’s children’s white baptismal garment. (These sightings of the white robes might continue throughout the Easter season, which included the feast of the descent of Jesus’ Holy Spirit – a feast known right up to the middle of the 20th century as Whit [= white] Sunday).
In our own day, we can still spot groups of Christians going out of their way to almost flaunt their commitment to the risen Jesus in a very public manner. They are those members of the different Christian traditions who come together each year on hill or strand or plain, to pray and salute the dawn on Easter Sunday morning.