There’s reason to believe that the primitive Church, at least some congregations, valued ministers who could make baptism into a near-death experience. They held the head of the person being baptized under water long enough to induce loss of consciousness, but not so long as to produce death itself. Certainly it would have made the sacrament an unforgettable experience.
One unfortunate effect of contemporary baptisms being largely baby affairs is that we focus our attention upon new birth, the natal life that is the gift of creation itself. Nothing wrong with that, except that the primitive Church saw baptism as a portal into resurrected life, which is so much more than a gift of nature. That was, after all, their experience of the Christ. “Jesus said to Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3: 14-15).
Consider, for example, the contrast between death and life drawn in this fifth century baptismal homily:
In the grave of the water the priest buries the whole man; and he resuscitates him by the power of life that is hidden in his words. In the door of the tomb of baptism he stands equipped, and he performs there a mystery of death and of the resurrection. With the voice openly he preaches the power of what he is doing — how it is that a man dies in the water, and turns and lives again. He reveals and shows to him who is being baptized in whose name it is that he is to die and swiftly come to life.
With a mystery of our Redeemer he goes into the bosom of the font after the manner of those three days in the midst of the tomb. Three days was our Redeemer with the dead: so also he that is baptized — the three times are three days. He verily dies by a symbol of that death which the Quickener of all died; and he surely lives with a type of life without end. Sin and death he puts off and casts away in baptism, after the manner of those garments which our Lord departing left in the tomb.
It’s easy to understand the popularity of a book like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real. We want to know what’s coming; heaven knows, even those who deny belief in an afterlife are willing to entertain an attractive hypothesis, one that might change their minds.
Odd thing is, the Church has an experience of the afterlife, one that the business of baptizing babies has, regrettably, occluded. (The early Church baptized babies, but in numbers a mere fraction of the adults). Baptism should be better than a book or a theory about the afterlife. The early Church thought of it as an actual experience of what was to come. What was that experience?
First, real death. The end, the annihilation of a life limited by sin, sadness, and ineluctable disintegration. There are two movements inside every human heart: an embrace of this world for all its beauty and goodness, and a smoldering resentment of it for what it lacks, for the pain it inflicts, for its sheer ephemeralness. The world makes us love it, but it does not love us enough in return to let us live on. The early Church was convinced that this world was passing — would pass — for all who drew breath. It would take with it all that was not worthy of eternity.
Secondly, the birth of a new creation, a new person, on the other side of death. Of course novelty had to be balanced by continuity. In nature itself, new life always follows death, but it is not the new life of the thing that died. Nature is utterly profligate; she abandons all her sucklings.
Resurrection is not a work of nature. Christ returned radically transformed, with a life so glorified that it initially defied recognition, but it was the Jesus who had died who returned. Nature wasn’t simply renewing itself. A living human identity passed through death into a new medium of itself.
And what gives any of us the identities we have? The people with whom we have shared our lives: lovers, family, and friends. That’s why the overwhelming characteristic of the after-life for the early Church was its Christic nature. It is, in the words of our current catechism, “to be with Christ” (#1025). Just as there is no love without lovers, without a relationship, there is no passing of human life into another realm without the awaiting arms of Christ, the Beloved.
The primitive Church had no interest in the empirical properties of the afterlife. How we would live-on wasn’t the issue. With whom we would live was! The deepest reality that is heaven is ultimately an embrace, an intimacy. It is the flickering love of a relationship, passing through death into its own truest form.
That’s why, for all the revelatory focus that baptism was for the early Church, the sacrament itself, as a symbol, was entirely dispensable. What mattered was that a lover reached through death to claim, and to be claimed by, the Beloved. Consider, in closing, these words from an even older source, a third century Roman document, known as The Apostolic Constitution of Hippolytus.
If anyone being a catechumen should be apprehended for the Name, let him not be anxious about undergoing martyrdom. For if he suffer violence and be put to death before baptism, he shall be justified having been baptized in his own blood.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein