Rediscovering the Catechumenate: How to help new converts discover their real Christian Identity

  This article was originally   published in the journal Church and Society 8.1 (2005): 1-24.  I thank Dr   Chan for his permission to post this article on the Global South Anglican   website.  I hope it would stimulate discussion on the shape of an Anglican   catechism as the Global South Theological Formation and Education Task Force   embarks on this task.  [- Michael Poon,  Global South TFE Task Force Convenor.] 
 

Dr Simon Chan is the Earnest Lau Professor of   Systematic Theology, Trinity Theological College, Singapore.  He developed this   article further in his latest publication Liturgical Theology: The Church as   Worshipping Community (Downers Groves: IVP, 2006).  His book Spiritual   Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life was selected as one of   the top ten books for 1999 by the academy of Parish Clergy.  He is also the   editor of Trinity Theological Journal and an ordained minister of the   Assemblies of God of Singapore and the advisor of Herald Assembly of God.

Introduction

We live in a world dominated by   the twin global phenomena of technology and consumerism. Technology drives the   consumerist culture and vice versa. And technology is changing so rapidly that   success in the marketplace depends on the speed in which one adapts to change.  It is not uncommon in many societies today for one to be employed, retrenched,  retrained and reemployed in a new job at least once in the course of one’s   working life — if one gets to complete the cycle. Many do not, and remain   unemployed for long periods. Not only is one expected to learn new skills and   switch jobs, one is also expected to work in different places in a globalized   market, play multiple roles, and engage in “multiple tasking.” The driving force   behind this revolution is information technology. Within a relatively short   period of time, IT has radically changed the way people live, but more   alarmingly, how they understand themselves. There is no question that   “technological man” of the 21st Century has lost a sense of a   perduring self, a stable identity; in its place stands the “plastic” or   “distributed self” inhabiting different worlds, playing constantly shifting   roles, such that it is difficult to determine what is one’s true identity,  because technology has blurred the distinction between reality and “virtual   reality.”[1] The cyberworld is perhaps the most obvious example of an alternative world in   which people live out their multiple selves. We see this especially in the   internet chatroom, from where fantasies are sometimes acted out in real life.  This situation is very unlike what life was like even as recently as a   generation ago. The mind-set of modernity still preserved the notion of a stable   self unified around “reason” and sustained by industrial progress. And if we go   further back to pre-modern societies, whether Christian or non-Christian, life   was generally governed by the vision of some universal principle, however   differently that principle was articulated: God, the dao, paramatman,  “heaven” (as in Confucianism), etc. Take the matter of work. In a pre-modern   society a person was likely to live in one place and have one occupation for   most of one’s life. An occupation was a life-long, life-defining vocation or   calling.[2]   But under the impact of postmodernity, the stable identity, universal vision,  and meta-narrative of modernity lie shattered. From its ruins emerges the   consumer (including the religious consumer) who creates his or her own identity,  vision and story by a plethora of choices that technology has made available and   the advertising media wants him or her to believe he or she has.

It is against   this postmodern backdrop that the church must rethink its response to the call   to be the church of Jesus Christ: the people of God, body of Christ and temple   of the Spirit. But how is the church practically to realize what it is   called to be? In the ancient church the way to becoming such a community is   through a process of initiation beginning with the catechumentate, followed by   baptism and climaxing in the eucharistic celebration. This long initiation   process, lasting up to three years, aims to help Christians break away from the   old pattern of life to embrace the new life in the new community. It is through   incorporation into this community called church that Christians receive their   gospel-shaped identity, an identity marked by death and resurrection. Only as   the church realizes (or at least seeks to realize) this gospel-shaped identity   can it become God’s answer to the world; that is to say, the missio Dei (mission of God) cannot be understood apart from who we are as the people of   God.

Nature of the   Catechumenate

The New Testament understands   salvation as involving a radical break with the past. In Col 1:13, 14, we read:  “For [God] has rescued us from the dominion   of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son   he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Salvation is the   transference from one kingdom to another. The kingdom of God, however, is not an   abstract “rule” or dominion, nor is it something merely internal (“in my heart”  as in popular evangelicalism); rather, God’s kingdom is always manifested in a   concrete community. This implies that conversion cannot be thought   of simply as a change of heart; it is a change of citizenship. To use an   Augustinian imagery, it is a move from the City of man to the City of God.

The work of catechizing   seeks to prepare iniduals for incorporation into the church, the community in   which the gospel finds its concrete expression in its worship, life and mission.  It attempts to shape iniduals to fit into the gospel story. The catechumenate   is a practical way of preparing one to live as a citizen of a new country. It   inculcates ecclesial values and clarifies for the new citizen the church’s   self-identity: What does the church believe and practice? What does it mean to   be baptized and to participate in the church’s eucharistic celebration?  Essentially, catechism helps iniduals enter the church with a full   understanding of what they are in for: they are making the commitment that   Christ requires of all his followers.

It is,  therefore, to be expected that the inculcation of Christian moral and spiritual   values would constitute a considerable part of catechumenal training. No stones   are to be left unturned. At the end of the long training, catechumens would have   to undergo another round of moral examination (or “scrutinies”):

When those who are to   receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived   uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited   the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works.[3]

Only those who had   adequately satisfied the church’s criteria for ecclesial membership were   baptized.

  Content of Catechisms

From earliest times Christians   preparing for initiation were instructed concerning the Scriptures, especially   on important themes like the history of salvation and Christian morals based on   the Sermon on the Mount. But over the years three subjects have come to feature   regularly in catechetical instruction.[4] These three cover three basic areas of Christianity, namely, Christian belief,  ethics, and spirituality. They are utterly essential to becoming a fully formed   Christian.

The Creed, Commandments   and Prayer are not to be regarded as discrete subjects to be learned by heart,  but are intimately integrated, creating a coherent theology and pattern of   Christian living.

While the   expositions of the Creed, Decalogue, and Prayer differ in the various Christian   traditions, there is a basic pattern underlying their relationship: The Creed is   the trinitarian faith confessed; the Decalogue the trinitarian faith lived out   in the world; and the Lord’s Prayer is the same faith expressed in communion   with the triune God. The trinitarian faith as professed in the Creed is the   foundation of the church’s moral life and spirituality.

The liturgical   context of the catechism

One important point to note is   that the three basic components of the catechism are recited by all the faithful   during worship. When we recite the creed, we are doing more than telling   ourselves what we believe; we are engaged in what in speech-act theory is called   a performative act. We are making a pledge of self-giving to the God we believe   in. In the practice of recitation, the creed functions like a nation’s anthem or   pledge. When people recite their national pledge or sing their national anthem,  they are doing more than just memorizing the contents of their nation’s “core   values” or “national ideology”; they are in effect pledging allegiance to the   nation. Also, just as singing the national anthem or reciting the national   pledge serves as a means of fostering a national identity, the church’s   recitation of the Creed, Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer are her way of   internalizing the ecclesial identity. The church in effect is saying, “We are a   community marked by belief in the triune God; our practice is governed by God’s   gracious gift of his law; and this graced life is characterized by personal   communion with the triune God.”  

It is within   the liturgical context that the significance of the Creed, Decalogue and Lord’s   Prayer can be most fully understood. They are meant to be practiced first in   worship before they could be properly lived out in the world. If the Creed hangs   loose from the life of worship, if it is orced from the living faith of the   church, it becomes hardened dogma, or worse, an ideology. If the Decalogue is   orced from worship, it becomes mere law, a requirement to be followed.[5] The end result could be moralism at best and Phariseeism at worst. If the Lord’s   Prayer is orced from worship, it easily becomes an occasion for the practice   of private piety.

It is   therefore vital that any modern attempt to revive the catechism should link its   basic contents as closely as possible to the worshipping community.[6] This is what makes catechetical instructions different from seminars and   training “programs” that fill up much of the average evangelical church’s weekly   schedule. In what follows I shall be looking at these three components from the   perspective of their location within the liturgy. To recognize their liturgical   location does not mean that catechetical instructions must actually be carried   out within the worship service; it means, rather, that whenever or wherever   catechism is given, its link to worship must be clearly understood. One   practical way to do this is to structure each catechesis within a worship   format. E.g., using the “liturgy of the word” found in the Daily Office.  Also,  we need to incorporate the Creed, Commandments and the Paternoster into our   weekly worship.

  The Creed

The Creed grew out of the early   church’s baptismal practice. In the ancient church, the Creed was a “symbol”  that was “handed over” (traditio symboli) to the catechumens before their   baptism. The Creed is called the “symbol of faith” because it is “a sign of   recognition and communion between believers.” We might say that the ability to   recite the Creed constitutes an identity maker for the Christians, since only to   them is the Creed “traditioned.” When the church professes the Creed in its   worship, it is testifying to its separate identity from the world. The Lutheran   Peter Brunner in his classic treatment on worship states:

Beginning with   Baptism, the Credo denotes a boundary line between world and church. As this   boundary line projects ever anew into worship, the church announces publicly   before the world that it is not world but that is has crossed the end-time   baptismal boundary.[7]

It is also a   symbol in that it summarizes the principal truths of the Christian faith.[8] The catechumens were expected to memorize it and recite it back (redditio   symboli) to the bishop at their baptism. At baptism the candidate was asked   three questions: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty…?” “Do you believe   in Jesus Christ his Son…?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit…?” The candidate   was then immersed each time after making the response: “I believe.”[9]

Within the   liturgy, the Creed is usually recited after the preaching of the word. In this   way it is the faith-response to the revelation of God in Christ (CCC 142). “I   believe” is more than just accent to the truth. As Reformed liturgiologist J.J.  von Allmen puts it, it is saying in effect: “I risk my life, I stake my   existence on the truth of what follows: that is my life and I renounce all   else.”[10] It is the reaffirmation of our baptismal faith when we renounce all that is not   of God and cling to nothing else but God. This faith-response is both a personal   act (CCC 166) as well as a corporate act: the faith of the people of God as a   whole.

The liturgical   use of the Creed reminds us that faith is more than my own personal belief in   the truth of God’s revelation; my own personal belief is dependent on the prior   faith of the church. To speak of “the faith of the church,” however, does not   mean that the church believes for us: it is not an “implicit faith”—as if all   that is needed is to trust the church to do all the believing. Rather, it is to   recognize that my own personal faith does not exist in a vacuum or in isolation   from the community that nourishes our faith. The Decalogue

The inclusion of the Decalogue   in catechetical instructions goes back to Augustine in the 5th   Century.[11] The proper use of the Decalogue must begin by setting it within the liturgical   context. In many Christian traditions, it is recited as a regular part of   worship.[12] But even here, its position in the liturgy reflects different understandings of   their “uses.” In the Anglican prayer books it is found before the penitential   rites, thus reinforcing its “use” as the means to bring conviction of sin. In   Calvin’s Genevan Rite (1545) the Decalogue is read after the confession   and absolution of sin and before the reading of Scripture. This position   reflects Calvin’s understanding that the law is also an expression of   gratitude of those who are redeemed by Christ.

The Ten   Commandments, therefore, should not be perceived as mere prohibitions and   precepts; they are first and foremost an expression of God’s grace. It is   important to note that they are preceded by a prologue that proclaims Israel’s   liberty: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house   of slavery” (Ex 20:2). Israel is reminded that she was a slave in Egypt, but now   she is truly free. To live under the commandments is to be free.

What is true   of the Decalogue in particular is also true of God’s law in general. Far from   being a burden, the law is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel.[13] The law of the Lord sets Israel apart from other nations. To have God’s law is   to have God “near” his people (cf. Deut 4:6-8). This is the reason why the law   is constantly celebrated in the Psalms. Because it stands for God’s special   relationship with Israel, it is something the godly take delight in, something   they love to meditate on (Ps 1; 119).

God’s   commandments are a gracious provision for which the redeemed must ever be   thankful because it makes the concrete expression of the redeemed life possible.  Without this understanding, the gracious commandments are reduced to impersonal   laws, and could easily become either a tool for excessive introspection   (“penitential piety”) or a graceless, moralistic “yoke of slavery” (cf. Gal   5:1).

There is a   close parallel between the Decalogue and Jesus’ giving of the “new commandment”  to his disciples in the upper room discourse (John 13:34; 15:12). First, the new   commandment of Jesus centers on love, just as the Decalogue is the concrete   expression of loving God and neighbors (cf. Deut 30:16).[14] This point was noted by Augustine:

As charity comprises   the two commandments to which the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets…so   the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets. Three were written on   one tablet and seven on the other.[15]

But a more profound truth   is that Jesus by his giving the new commandment was signaling the establishment   of the new covenant with the reconstituted people of God. In so doing, he was   standing in the exact place that Yahweh stood in giving the Decalogue to Israel.

The Decalogue   reminds all Christians that the gracious covenantal relationship with God must   be expressed in a specific and concrete way: the way of loving God and   neighbors. The Lord’s Prayer

In the ancient church, the   Paternoster, like the Creed, was “handed down” (traditio) to catechumens   to be memorized and then “handed back,” that is, recited to the bishop at their   baptism. Its use in baptism “signifies new birth into the ine life.” Because   we are born again into the family of God, we could speak to our heavenly Father.

Since Christian   prayer is our speaking to God with the very word of God, those who are “born   anew…through the living and abiding word of God” learn to invoke their Father by   the one Word he always hears. They can henceforth do so, for the seal of the   Holy Spirit’s anointing is indelibly placed on their hearts, ears, lips, indeed   their whole filial being.[16]

The Lord’s   Prayer is a summary of the prayer of the church. It expresses in direct   address to God what the church confesses in its creed. As such, it is, as   Tertullian calls it, “the summary of the gospel.”[17]   It is the gospel turned into prayer. Like the Creed it sets forth the corporate   life of the church. But unlike the Creed, it is never prayed in the singular. It   is the prayer of the church rather than of the inidual. As John   Chrysostom puts it, our Lord “teaches us to make prayer in common for all our   brethren. For he did not say ‘my Father’ who are in heaven, but ‘our’ Father,  offering petitions for the common body.”[18]

To pray is to   turn away from oneself and to be fully attentive to the Other. This basic truth   about prayer must never be lost to the catechumens (and every baptized   Christian, for that matter). Initiation into the Christian community means that   “I” can no longer be the center. The world no longer revolves around me: my   desires, ambitions, career, and (especially for postmodern people) my right to   self-fulfillment. Rather, my life revolves around a new Center, Christ, who   holds me along with other believers in a relationship that is to be determined   solely by him. In short, “I” must see myself as a member of the body of Christ,  functioning either as his hand, foot, eye, etc. (cf. 1 Cor 12). The paradigm   shift from being myself to being a member-of-Christ can only come about through   prayer. Learning the Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is more than learning a form of prayer, or even a structure for formulating one’s own private prayers.[19] It is learning to pray what is essentially the prayer of the church, and that   means learning to become the church. It is learning to shed our inidualism   and to behave as a responsible member of God’s family.

In many   Christian traditions it is an inextricable part of the liturgy. Even among some   Free Churches, its use is encouraged.[20] In some churches, it is used as the conclusion to the “pastoral prayer,”  indicating in this way that it is a summary of the church’s prayer. In other   traditions, it is set at the end of the eucharistic prayer just before the   Supper. Von Allmen suggests that the Paternoster belongs properly to the   baptized rather than the catechumens: “The Lord’s Prayer is much more itself   when the first foretaste of its answer is the Eucharist.”[21] In that position, both its function as a summary of the church’s prayer and its   eschatological dimension are highlighted, as the CCC explains:

Placed between the anaphora (the Eucharistic prayer) and the communion, the Lord’s Prayer sums   up on the one hand all the petitions and intercessions expressed in the movement   of the epiclesis and, on the other, knocks at the door of the Banquet of   the kingdom which sacramental communion anticipates.[22]

The Social Context of the   Catechism[23]

The catechism is one place where   contextual issues could and should be properly addressed. The catechism is a   flexible tool. The traditional rigid question-and-answer approach based on sheer   memorization is hardly appropriate nowadays. A free-flowing exposition that   allows for adaptation to different learning situations and contexts   characterizes the newer catechisms.[24]   It is the place to ground the converts both in the Christian tradition and in a   Christian perspective of the world in which they live. In fact, the catechism’s   content should address the situation in which the church finds itself.

In the Asian   context, e.g., the catechism should train Christians to deal with a number of   contextual issues. The nature of the Asian context is complex. There is the   “modern” Asia plugged to the world market economy with all its attendant   material prosperity and moral ambiguities. But there is also the “traditional”  Asia with its agrarian lifestyle, extended family, hierarchical structure,  animistic consciousness, and deep religiosity. In this traditional context, the   initiation practice of exorcism carried out during the weeks of scrutiny may   involve more than just the performance of a rite. Sometimes the demonic may be   encountered in a more direct way. The scrutiny may require that candidates   renounce explicit association with pagan religious practices.  Sometimes the   modern and sometimes the traditional predominates, but oftentimes they exist   uneasily alongside each other.

Instructions   concerning the Creed, Commandments and Lord’s Prayer too will have to be   contexualized to address issues specific to the catechumens’ social context. The   following are some context-specific issues that the catechumenate may have to   address in many Asian societies.

1.      The Creed:

·   How do we teach the Trinity vis-à-vis the world religions such as   Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam?

·    Does the Christian understanding of sacramental community as an   embodied fellowship have anything to say to the “virtual reality” fostered by   the Internet?

·    How does the Christian doctrine of the Spirit relate to the   traditional Asian animistic instinct?

2.      The Ten   Commandments:

·     What has the Christian view of life to say to the secularized   world which treats humans as means to an end?

·     What does it mean to be Christian in a society dominated by the   ideal of market and consumerism? What does the gospel have to say to   “technological man”?

·     What kind of family structure is consistent with the promotion of   biblical values?

·     What are we to make of the hierarchical structure of the Asian   family?

·     How is the first commandment to be observed in a socio-religious   context that accepts the existence of many gods and practices magic, ination   and ancestral veneration?[25]

3.      The Lord’s   Prayer:

·         How does Christian prayer differ from the idea prevailing in   popular religions that it is an “exchange” between a person and the deity?

·         How is the petition “Thy kingdom come” to be understood in a   totalitarian context? What other options are there besides those provided by   liberation theology?

·         How is the petition for daily bread to be carried out in a context   of mass poverty?

These are   weighty issues that the church must help its future members to grapple with, if   they are to become full members of the body of Christ. At the end of the   catechetical training, and after the catechumens have been satisfactorily   “scrutinized” concerning their way of life in accordance with the Commandments,  Creed and Lord’s Prayer, they are ready for baptism.

Baptism-Confirmation

If the catechumenate is the   process of weaning the Christian from the world, the flesh and the devil, then   baptism constitutes the final break with the three enemies of the soul.

  Baptism

On the first Pentecost Sunday   after Peter’s proclamation of the gospel, the crowd asked: “What then shall we   do?” Peter’s response was: “Repent and be baptized.” The world needs to be   transformed into church through a radical break with the past (repentance) and   incorporation into the body of Christ (baptism). This radical break is   differently pictured in the New Testament as deliverance from the domain of   darkness and transference into “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13) and   as transformation from darkness to light (Eph 5:8). The First Epistle of Peter   sums it all up:

But you are a chosen people, a royal   priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the   praises of him who called you out of darkness into his   wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;  once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet 2:9-10).

Elsewhere the New Testament   draws on the story of the Flood  (1 Pet 2:20-21) and the crossing of the Red Sea   (1 Cor 10:2) to portray the passage from death to life. Baptism is a drowning of   the entire sinful self, a death and burial (Rom 6:4a). But out of death new life   emerges: “just as Christ was raised   from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom   6:4b). This is why Cyril of Jerusalem in his mystagogical sermons speaks of the   waters of baptism as “at once your grave and your mother.”[26] It is both “tomb” and “womb.”

Baptism is not merely concerned about the   sin of the inidual, either as cleansing from original sin (as was the case of   some in the post-Constantinian church) or as a portrayal of inidual’s sins   already forgiven and the inheritance of eternal life (as is the case in among   many evangelicals today). It is, as Schmemann points out, a cosmic event. We   have already seen something of its cosmic dimension in passages like Col 1:13.  The ancient church’s baptismal liturgy conveys nothing less when it asks the one   being baptized to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and signals this   renunciation with exorcisms.[27] In some rituals the baptismal candidate would first turn to the West (the realm   of darkness, whence the devil was thought to originate) and curse and spit on   the devil. Then he or she would turn to the East to receive the coming of the   Son (Sun) of Righteousness. In these renunciations and exorcisms, the church is   making a cosmic claim that God’s power has vanquished the Enemy. It is a claim   “not on souls alone, but on the totality of life, on the whole world.”[28] Strong martial language is used to highlight the point that baptism is a cosmic   struggle to reclaim humanity and the world for Christ.  Thus the church continues its mission of calling people to repentance and   baptizing until the Body of Christ becomes the “perfect man” (Eph 4:13),  consisting of members in communion with Christ the Head rendering praise to the   Father.

At the same time, the cosmic   dimension of baptism — this immersion into death and rising to new life in the   new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17) — does not mean that one’s unique personhood is   lost. One does not become a nameless member of a herd. It is the old self that   is buried, and out of the old emerges the new self. In Christ is revealed our   true and unique identity. As members of Christ’s body, we are truly unique   persons with very distinctive functions. Each member discovers new relationships   with others based on the Spirit’s sovereign distribution of his gifts (cf. 1 Cor   12). The church signals this new identity by giving new believers a new name.[29]

Confirmation

The early Christian practice of   including anointing with oil either before or after the water bath or both   suggests that water baptism is closely related to the concept of Spirit-baptism.[30] This understanding of water baptism as Spirit-baptism is derived from the fact   that the mission of Jesus in all four gospels is uniformly understood to include   baptizing believers with the Holy Spirit in contrast to John’s baptism   with water.  Christian baptism is unlike John’s baptism in that it is Jesus’  baptizing with the Spirit. Thus the water ritual can only be understood in   relation to the gift of the Spirit. There is of course no mention of anointing   with oil in connection with water baptism in the NT; so the sudden appearance of   the practice in the early church can only be attributed to the fact that   Christian water baptism was regarded as the sacramental equivalent of   Spirit-baptism. The fact that, due to historical circumstances, the rite of   anointing with oil became temporally separated from baptism, does not alter the   basic understanding that the gift of the Spirit is an essential component of the   rite of initiation.[31] Theologically, this means that it cannot be understood as a “second work of   grace” distinct from initiation, as taught in the Wesleyan-Holiness and   Pentecostal traditions, but must be understood as part of conversion-initiation.[32]

However, the   unity between baptism and confirmation does not mean that there is no   distinction of function and significance between the two signs. Precisely   because they are two signs within one baptismal ritual, two spiritual realities   can be distinguished within the single complex of conversion-initiation.[33] The distinction (though not temporal separation) between baptism and anointing   with laying on of hands was widely recognized in the early church. It was based   on the understanding that there are two distinct functions of the Spirit that   goes back to Irenaeus: first, a formative function of the Spirit to unite   the church into a single body; then a nutritive function of the Spirit to   refresh all Christians. Although Irenaeus did not tie these two functions to any   initiatory rites, it was Cyprian who made the connection. In Cyprian’s time,  however, unlike in the 9th Century, the distinction did not involve a   temporal separation.[34] This distinction was also underscored by Augustine when he spoke to neophytes:

…you, too, in a   certain sense were first ground by the lowly practice of fasting and by the   sacred rite of exorcism. Next the water of baptism was added, by which, as it   were, you were moistened in order to be formed into bread. But there is yet no   bread without fire. What, then, does fire signify? Holy Chrism, the oil that   supplies the fire, the sacrament of the Holy Spirit…. That is how the Holy   Spirit comes, the sacrament of fire after the sacrament of water, and you are   made a bread, namely, the body of Christ. And that is how unity is signified.[35]

This link   between water baptism and Spirit-baptism may also help to explain the strong   sacramental realism underlying the ancient church’s practice.[36] Baptism was not a “mere sign” of a prior spiritual work effected by the   Holy Spirit in the human heart; rather, baptism is effective because it is the   Spirit who effects the reality in and by the sign. The sense of spiritual   reality associated with the rite is quite pervasive in the early church fathers.  An example may be cited from Tertullian:

All waters…in virtue   of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of   sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and   rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified,  they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying.[37]

Tertullian   goes on, at the end of his treatise On Baptism, to urge the newly   baptized to pray for spiritual gifts and to expect to receive them. This seems   to accord with Irenaeus’ distinction between the two functions of the Spirit:

Therefore, blessed   ones, whom the grace of God awaits, when you ascend from that most sacred font   of your new birth, and spread your hands for the first time in the house of your   mother [the church], together with your brethren, ask from the Father, as from   the lord, that His own specialties of grace and distributions of gifts may be   supplied you. “Ask,” saith He, “and ye shall receive.” Well, you have asked, and   have received; you have knocked, and it has been opened to you.[38]

For the church   fathers there was no separation between the spiritual reality and the sign. The   liturgy was no dead ritual but a vibrant reality energized by the Spirit. But it   is a truth that the modern mind cannot grasp. It is particularly difficult to   teach Protestants, and especially evangelicals, concerning sacramental realities   because they have been plagued perennially by the nominalist philosophy which   sees signs as mere names or arbitrary pointers rather than as having any   necessary connection to the things they signify.[39] Modern evangelicals find it much easier to grasp the Zwinglian “memorial” theory   of the sacraments since it does not require them to associate transcendence with   anything so mundane as water, bread and wine. For many today, it makes better   sense if spiritual realities are located within the subjective experience of the   person, in the “feelings.” If worship stimulates a particularly strong emotional   upsurge — that is “real”! It is rather ironical that the evangelicalism that   claims to be the heir of the opponent of Protestant liberalism in the 19th   Century should find itself unwittingly concurring with the father of liberalism,  Frederick Schleiermacher, who understands the source of religion to be found   precisely in human subjectivity: “the feeling of absolute dependence.”

Mystagogy

Besides teaching the Creed,  Decalogue and Lord’s Prayer, another important aspect of the catechumenate is   training Christians to participate fully in the worship of the church. It   explains to neophytes the meaning of various liturgical acts and the part they   had to play for worship to be effective. If the liturgy is the enactment of the   redemptive drama, the catechumenate could be seen as the rehearsal for the   drama. Catechumens were trained through involvement in the worship. They were   being prepared for the day of their baptism and first communion when they became   full participants—their “debut,” as it were—in the drama of redemption. But   since the culminating act of the liturgy, namely, the eucharist, was still   closed to them until they had become full members of the ecclesial community   through baptism, that part of liturgical education concerning the sacraments   could best be done after their baptism. This gave rise to a post-baptismal   catechumenate known as mystagogy at the end of the 4th Century.

It was imperative that the newly baptized or neophytes   understand what they had just been through at baptism, and what they had   received at their first eucharistic celebration. Now that they had been baptized   and tasted their first eucharistic meal, they were in a better position to   appreciate the explanations about their new experience. This was the reason   Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, gave for the five mystagogical sermons addressed to   the newly baptized.[40]

The first sermon explains to the neophytes what had happened   at baptism, especially the meaning of turning West to renounce the devil, “and   all thy works,” “and all his pomp,” “and all thy service.”[41] The “pomp” of the devil would include “theatres, and horse-races, and hunting,  and all such vanity,” while the “services of the devil” have to do with any   rituals or practices associated with idol temples, such as burning of incense,  ination, omens, amulets and charms.[42]

The second sermon explains the meaning of baptism. It is the   “imitation” of Christ’s death and rising: “He has freely bestowed upon us, that   we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality.”[43]

In the third sermon on the chrism, Cyril understands it to   mean that “ye have been made Christs, by receiving the antitype of the Holy   Ghost.” The anointing imitates what Jesus Christ experienced after his baptism:  the descent of the Spirit.[44]

The nature of the eucharist is explained in the fourth   sermon. The bread and wine are not “bare elements,” but “from faith” one is   “fully assured…that the Body and Blood of Christ have been vouchsafed to thee.”[45] In eating and drinking, we are not to trust “the judgment of thy bodily palate”  but to receive “the antitypical Body and Blood of Christ.”[46]

In the final sermon, Cyril explains the different parts of   the liturgy beginning with the kiss of reconciliation (“the sign that our souls   are mingled together”), then to the sursum corda, sanctus, intercession,  the Lord’s Prayer, the invitation “Holy things to holy men,” and finally on how   the bread and wine are to be received: in a posture symbolizing reverence and   awe.[47] Such was the nature of mystagogical catechism. It brought the liturgical   education of the newly baptized to its completion.

Underlying   mystagogy is a theology of the liturgy: an understanding of liturgy, especially   the sacraments as signs mediating the “mysteries” of the faith, the content of   salvation in Christ.[48] That is to say, the liturgy initiates one into the knowledge of the mystery; the   liturgical action embodies the mystery (the reality) itself.[49] Typological interpretation played a key role in explaining the relationship   between the sign and the reality.[50]

There are two   valuable lessons the modern church could learn from the patristic church in   their relentless pursuit of mystagogical instructions. The first is that while   we may question their use of fanciful allegories and types, yet underlying their   method is the presupposition that the Scripture is to be treated not so much as   a collection of historical texts, but as a unified whole. The modern church has   seen the disastrous consequences of the so-called scientific study of the Bible   since the Enlightenment. It has led to the fragmentation of theology and the   impoverishment of the worship of the church. It is largely due to the attempt to   recover a unified theology that modern interpreters are returning to the ancient   method of “spiritual exegesis.”[51]

A second   lesson is that liturgical education must form a necessary part of the education   of those seeking to enter the church or are already in it. But that is   precisely what is missing! Many Christians from the Free Church tradition have   no liturgy to speak of and hence no understanding of what it means.[52] But even where a liturgy is still observed in some mainline Protestant churches,  there is hardly any liturgical education going on.[53]

It is   important to note that the whole catechumenal process is set within a liturgical   context. It is more than instruction or indoctrination but training through   actual participation in the liturgy. As Aidan Cavanagh puts it, “One learns how   to fast, pray, repent, celebrate, and serve the good of one’s neighbor less by   being lectured on these matters than by close association with people who do   these things with regular ease and flair.”[54] It is more than an educational process; it is a process of conversion, of being   weaned from the world, the flesh and the devil.[55]

Conclusion

The ancient catechumenate poses   two significant challenges to the modern church. First, it shows that conversion   is more than the initial step of “accepting Christ as my personal savior.” It is   a process rather than merely a crisis event. Although this is being recognized,[56] in practice conversion is still very much treated as a single, crisis   experience.

Missiologist   Paul Hiebert has shown that the complexities involved in conversion in a context   radically different from the Christian West makes it difficult to conceive of   conversion in terms of fixed categories like belief in some essential doctrines   or perhaps some defining practice like saying the “sinner’s prayer” — categories   that have been associated with the evangelical doctrine of conversion.[57] The typical evangelical understanding of conversion is to see it in terms of   crossing a fixed line, what is sometimes called a “crisis conversion.” Hiebert   argues that we need to see conversion as a movement towards a center of the   faith, but a center with a porous rather than fixed boundary. In other words,  becoming a Christian means a basic reorientation of life towards the center and   a continuing move into it. As Hiebert puts is, “growth is an equally essential   part of being a Christian.”[58]

While the   concept of continuing conversion is increasingly acknowledged, evangelical   Protestantism has not come up with a practical response that does full justice   to this understanding. In practice, it still tends to operate as if “accepting   Christ as savior” is the climax of conversion, the only thing that really   counts, and all that happens afterward is simply “follow-up” to build up the   faith and prepare for service. Baptism, on this view, is somewhat redundant,  more of a formality than an essential element in conversion-initiation. A new   convert, i.e., one who has gone through the proper steps of becoming one after   saying the “sinner’s prayer,” is almost immediately fully integrated into the   life of the church. E.g., in most free churches, communion is open to anyone who   has “accepted Christ as savior” whether baptized or not. If certain positions in   the church are still barred to them, it is due more to pragmatic than   theological reasons.

The ancient   catechumenal process provides a practical response that corresponds more closely   to the idea of continuing conversion than any of the practices currently found   in the modern evangelical church. The evangelical language of “accepting Christ”  and being “born again” gives the impression that conversion is largely a   subjective act and a completed event. But when conversion is a process of   becoming, then there needs to be a corresponding initiation process in which the   initial response to faith is tested out, clarified, and strengthened. Just as   true love between a man and woman culminates in marriage, the catechumenal   process culminates in baptism, when one enters into full communion with the   church. Only then is the Eucharist given to the “neophyte” for the first time.

The second   challenge is how to help evangelicals recover a sacramental theology, and in so   doing, help them encounter the mystery of grace in the liturgy. How do we teach   sacramental theology to people who have had little or no experience of   encountering God in things? If the ancient church employed the typological   interpretation for this purpose, perhaps the present-day church should consider   appropriate equivalents. In the ancient church the problem was not so much how sacraments are related to the spiritual realities as what they   are related to. Our problem today is how to make sense of the link between   material and spiritual. Perhaps we could use the analogy of marriage. If two   persons are truly in love, they sign and “seal” their commitment in marriage. In   marriage, something happens to the couple: before the wedding, they are still   two separate persons; after the wedding, they are one — married. In much   the same way, one becomes truly and fully a Christian at baptism. The analogy,  however, may not help at all if people no longer appreciate the sacramentality   of marriage. It is a fact that marriage in a postmodern culture has lost much of   its mystery to such practices as ad hoc live-in arrangement, trial   marriage, marriage of convenience, same-sex marriage and such like. When   marriage is reduced to a matter of personal choice and preference, we have a   situation where we may have to rescue the sacramentality of marriage by appeal   to the sacramentality of baptism! Marriage would have to be seen as a “type” of   baptism. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist will have to serve as   archetypes — in fact, they are the archetypes — from which other “sacramentals”  like marriage can be properly understood. This situation only highlights the   difficulty of trying to make sense of sacramental theology in a world that has   lost the sense of mystery. Each age has its unique challenges. It was no less   difficult for the mystagogical bishop-theologians of the 4th Century   to help catechumens who had no compelling reasons to make further spiritual   progress towards a fully formed faith in Christ.

Footnotes

[1] David Pullinger, Information     Technology and Cyberspace: An Extra-Connected Community? (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001), pp. 91-93.

[2] This is how John Calvin and the Puritan tradition have understood calling.    Every Christian has two callings: the calling to salvation (Institutes 3.24.8) and the calling to be faithful to the work that God has appointed     for him or her to do. This second calling is “a sort of sentry post” which     we can only leave at the God’s bidding (Institutes 3.11.6).< id="ftn3">

[3] On the Apostolic Traditions, pp. 105-106.

[4] On the content of the catechism, see Robert M. Grant, “Development of the     Christian Catechumenate” in Made, Not Born, pp. 40-46.

[5] The difference between the Ten Commandments and “law” is that as commands,    they are the direct word of God addressed to his people. They presuppose a     covenantal relationship between God and his people, whereas laws are     indirect and impersonal. See Killingray and Wells, Using the Ten     Commandments, p. 7.

[6] See Anscar Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals,    Religiosity, and Catechesis (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992),    pp. 134-174.  He cites John Paul II’s Catechesi tradendae as saying     that “the catechesis that prepares for the sacraments is an eminent kind,    and every form of catechesis necessarily leads to the sacraments of faith”    (p. 137). Cf. the following from Pope John Paul II: “Catechesis is     intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity,    for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Jesus Christ     works in fullness for the transformation of human beings.” Catechesi     tradendae, 23.1 in The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul     II, ed. with introduction by J. Michael Miller (Hungtington, IN: Our Sunday     Visitor, 1998).

[7] Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, p. 206.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 188. Hereafter CCC.

[9] On the Apostolic Tradition, Canon 21. For details of baptismal     liturgies, see E. C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy,    revised and expanded, Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo Press,    1960, 2003). Modern liturgical scholarship has highlighted the variety of     patterns of baptismal rituals, which probably explains the many versions of     the Apostles’ Creed. See Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of     Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1992).

[10] Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship Its Theology and Practice, p. 166.

[11] CCC no. 2066.< id="ftn12">

[12] E.g., in the Reformed and Anglican traditions (see below) but,    interestingly, not in the Lutheran. The reason for Luther’s omission may be     due to his understanding of the nature of confession. In his Small     Catechism under the question, “What sin should we confess?” Luther     distinguishes two kinds of confession. “Before God” we must confess “all     manner of sins, even of those which we do not ourselves perceive,” whereas     before one’s confessor, one must confess specific sins which one recalls     with the help of the Decalogue. It appears, then, that for Luther,    liturgical confession is concerned with the general sinful condition of the     worshippers, and therefore the recitation of the Decalogue, which was meant     to help one recall specific sins, would not be appropriate.

[13] See Margaret Killingray and Jo Bailey Wells, Using the Ten Commandments,    Grove Biblical Series 17 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2000).

[14] The interchangeability of the Decalogue and the new commandment is reflected     in certain liturgical order where either one or the other would be read.    See, e.g., the BCP (1979), Order of Holy Communion Rite A, no. 24.

[15] Cited in CCC no. 2067.

[16] CCC no. 2769.

[17] Tertullian, De Oratione 1. Cited in CCC no. 2761.

[18] Noted in CCC no. 2768.

[19] The way in which the public prayer of the church is put to private use can     be seen in many late medieval and early Protestant devotional primers. See     Helen C. White, English Devotional Literature (Prose), 1600-1640 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1931).

[20] As seen, e.g., in Baptist Praise and Worship (Oxford: Oxford     University Press, 1991) produced by the Baptist churches of the United     Kingdom. The hymnal includes, besides     the Lord’s Prayer, some standard prayers,    such as the Sursum Corda, from the Book of Common Prayer and the     Alternative Service Book.

[21] J. von Allmen, Worship, p. 293.

[22] CCC no. 2770.

[23] See the works of Anscar Chupungco, Liturgies of the Future: The Process     and Methods of Inculturation (New York: Paulist Press, 1989) and Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity, and Catechesis (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).

[24] The official, comprehensive CCC on the one hand and a personal, perspectival     one like An Anglican Catechism (New York, London: Continuum, 2001) by     Edward Norman on the other, illustrate the broad range of possibilities of     catechetical training.

[25] Cf. CCC no. 2115-2117.

[26] Catechetical Lectures XX.4.

[27] For an account of early Christian practice see Herman Wegman, Christian     Worship in the East and West: A Study Guide to Liturgical History,    trans. Gordon W. Lathrop (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985).

[28] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacrament and Orthodoxy,    p. 70.

[29] In the RCIA, this occurs when new believers are accepted into the     catechumenate (no. 73).

[30] Cavanagh, Shape of Baptism, pp. 25-26.

[31] The temporal separation between baptism and confirmation was a result of     reforms under Charlemagne in the 9th Century which insisted on     confirmation by the laying on of episcopal hands. See Nathan D. Mitchell,    “Dissolution of the Rite of Christian Initiation,” in Made, Not Born: New     Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate (Notre Dame:    University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), pp. 55-56.

[32] See, e.g., Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts in the New     Testament Church and Today, rev. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998) and     James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1984).

[33] The oneness and distinction between baptism and confirmation provides a     better explanation of the Pentecostal doctrine of subsequence than the one     usually given by classical Pentecostals—that Spirit-baptism is “distinct     from and subsequent to” the new birth—which makes Spirit-baptism separate     from conversion. See Simon Chan, Pentecostal Theology and the Christian     Spiritual Tradition, pp. 53-54, 87-93.

[34] Nathan D. Mitchell, “Dissolution of the Rite of Christian Initiation,” p. 57     citing A. P. Milner, Theology of Confirmation (Notre Dame: University     of Notre Dame Press, 1971), pp. 19-22.

[35] Nathan D. Mitchell, “Dissolution of the Rite of Christian Initiation,” p.    58.

[36] Mazza’s study of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s mystagogical sermons has noted     that his sacramental realism is explained in terms of the action of the     Spirit (Mystagogy, pp. 85-93).

[37] Tertullian, On Baptism 4.

[38] On Baptism 20.

[39] This point was noted by Louis Bouyer many years ago in The Spirit and     Forms of Protestantism (London: Collins, 1956).

[40] Cyril, Catechetical Lectures in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,    second series, vol. 7, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA:    Hendrickson, [1894] 1995), Lectures XIX-XXIII. The situation may be     different in the modern church context where the unbaptized are usually not     physically excluded from the Eucharistic event, although still excluded from     partaking. In the CCC, mystagogy seeks to deepen what had already been     learned in prebaptismal catechism: “deepening [the neophystes’] grasp of the     paschal mystery and …making it part of their lives through meditation on the     Gospel, sharing in the eucharist, and doing the works of charity” (244).

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