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Baptism as Symbol


This is my third in a series of short reflection papers for one of my classes this semester: Theology and the Body.

Both early Christian writer Cyril and current researcher Margaret Miles offer a glimpse into the world of early Christian baptism. Baptism for the first Christians was a deeply symbolic event with many implications for the notions of the physical body’s relationship to God. Baptism was to be taken seriously and every part of the ceremony was meant to signify the individual’s renunciation of the world and the embracing of a new lifestyle in Christ.


Today, every denomination and Christian group baptizes differently. Some baptize at infancy by sprinkling water to signify promise; some baptize by total immersion after the profession of Christian faith; some baptize both times, and still others at every point in between. Locations of baptisms can differ (indoors or out; church or swimming pool) as can the authority of the event (sacrament or ordinance). However, often lost in the debate of the parameters of baptism is its meaning for the physical body.

According to Miles, baptism was a tricky subject in the first few centuries, mainly because it needed to tiptoe around the issues of nudity and bathing. These themes were prominent in secular Roman life, and the cult of Christianity had to adequately and carefully address this with its sacred ceremony. Thus, rules were put in place to heighten the meaning of the ceremonial washing. The temporal cleansing was rare for a Christian; thus one could 'remember their baptism.'

Today, in a world of indoor plumbing and daily showers, baptism as 'cleansing' may have lost its meaning. Washing in spiritual waters may carry significance in word only. The only physical reminder for today's baptized Christians is a fond memory and maybe a photograph to commemorate the few minutes of wetness and witnesses that was their experience.

Perhaps this is why so many people get fish or crosses tattooed on ankles and backs.

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