Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Understanding the Theology of the Baptistery

The baptismal font at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church, Fargo, ND.  Building design and liturgical furnishings by Liturgical Environs PC.  Architect of Record: Zerr-Berg Architects, Fargo ND.

When we enter a Church, we reach for the holy water stoup to bless ourselves: a symbolic renewal of our baptismal vows in a small and compressed way. This act is part of our entering into Mass, which itself is a compression of the yearly liturgical cycle, which finds its fullest expression in the liturgy of the Paschal Triduum at which adult catechumens are normally baptized. But the yearly cycle, and the Triduum, are themselves compressed expressions of all of salvation history, which begins when “God created heaven and earth, the earth was still an empty waste, darkness hung over the deep, but the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gn 1:1-2) and end with the manifestation of, “the new Jerusalem being sent down by God from heaven, all clothed in readiness, like a bride who has adorned herself to meet her husband” (Rev 21:2). As we shall see, the baptistery, the font, and the rite of baptism are called upon to express and manifest a huge and interwoven body of scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental thought, which frankly is a massively difficult task today.

"In the Genesis account of creation and the Garden, there were no doors or portals or gates or walls. The gates of paradise could only be said to be closed after the expulsion; before that all of creation was the domain of man as part of the “garden of delight” into which God placed Adam and Eve."

We might start by understanding that the holy water stoup receives its symbolic imagery from the baptismal font, but the font receives its imagery from creation itself. In the Genesis account of creation and the Garden, there were no doors or portals or gates or walls. The gates of paradise could only be said to be closed after the expulsion; before that all of creation was the domain of man as part of the “garden of delight” into which God placed Adam and Eve. Doors, gates, portals, and such (along with all the symbolism of dwelling apart from nature: the cave, the tent, the house, the temple) are consequences of alienation from God. It is thus fitting that by Jesus’ example, the order of creation is restored through the waters of baptism where we are no longer alienated from God or each other, but rather enter into a new and restored relationship in Christ through this first sacrament. This alienation will only finally and completely be eradicated in the heavenly Jerusalem. Significantly, the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem will never be shut (Rev 21:25). Unlike the ancient Roman portal, or city gate, that was unconsecrated so that unclean things could be carried across the threshold, the gate is Christ himself who calls all nations to himself (Rev 21:26). Nothing unclean or corrupt or mendacious will ever pass the gates for “there is no entrance but for those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). This passage shows the restoration, even the reversal, of the Fall: now the garden is restored with the life giving waters that flow from the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1), the waters nourishing the tree of life that bears fruit all twelve months of the year, the fruit of which brings health to all the nations (Rev 22:2). Recalling the passage in Ezekiel 47, the water flows from the right side of the temple eastward, that is from the side of the crucified body of the Lord. The throne of the Lamb in Revelation 22 can thus be understood to be the cross, for when one of the soldiers pierced the side of the Lord, blood and water flowed out (Jn 19:34).

The baptismal font at Our Savior Catholic Church, University of Southern California, Los Angeles CA.The raised infant font trickles into the lower immersion font for adults.   Liturgical design by Steven J Schloeder AIA, Liturgical Environs PC.  Design Architect: Elkus Manfredi, Boston MA. Architect of Record: Perkowitz + Ruth, Los Angeles CA.

Thus, baptism not only commences our journey in Christ, it also both causes us to participate in his passion, death, and resurrection, and is a foretaste and promise of our destination in Christ. The intended message of baptism is primal—primal both as “of first importance” and as “originary” both to creation and to our lives as Christians—and this importance was expressed in the early Church by a clear separation between the font and the altar, between the unbaptized catechumens and those who were admitted to the “mysteries” through the disciplina arcani. As St. Justin Martyr tells us of the primitive Christian practice, the catechumens are first brought to a place where there is water to be baptized, and after the new Christian has been washed, is then brought to the places of the Eucharistic assembly. 1 Not until the neophyte (literally, “new growth” as part of the vine and branches imagery) was received into the Church, and taught the fuller mysteries of the Faith, would he or she be admitted to the Eucharist.

it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber…” (Tertullian). Shown is The Baptism of Priscilla, by John H DeRosen, c. 1951-1953.  St John's Episcopal Church, Memphis TN.

The place of baptism in the primitive Church could be any place with water: a public bath, a town well, a spring or river or lake or sea. Christ was baptized in the River Jordan; St. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian official at some non-descript place of water (quamdam aquam); St. Paul found some water to baptize his jailer, and the man’s household. Tertullian, writing in the second century, comments: “it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber…2 The context of this passage gives us insight into the Church’s understanding of the sacraments themselves.

For the North-African theologian, Tertullian, as for the ancients in virtually every culture, water itself was a sacred and life-giving thing, but also a dangerous and deadly thing. Tertullian points out that water is used by all cults as means of purification—the followers of Isis and Mithras, the Zoroastrian, Apollinarian and Eleusinian rituals, the Egyptians, Jews, and Romans, all used water for purification and illumination. Justin Martyr had earlier commented that the healing properties of water were perverted by the demons, such that the false religions also had rituals of washing and sprinkling before entering the temples for their idolatrous practices. 3 Water was, therefore, universally understood to nourish and sustain life, but also was associated with both death by drowning, as well as various maladies of madness such as “nympholepsy”, “hydrophobia,” and “lymphatic” illness. Sacred springs were places of healing, such as the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:7ff), or at Bethsaida that was stirred by the angel for healing (Jn 5:2-4), as well as for the pagans at Sulis Minerva, which is now the City of Bath. Conversely, swamps and putrid waters were places of contagion and evil, inhabited by evil spirits. Because of the primal and cosmological nature of water—that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters”—water itself is “in a manner endued with medicinal virtues.” The Spirit of God continues to hover over all water, which is the cause of its holiness, and becomes the apt sacramental symbol for new life, cleansing, and sanctifying: “Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived, therefore, the power of sanctifying.” 4

Tertullian thus considered water as the apt symbol of baptism—not merely by some general sign-value that we are washed in water, or that we are born and nourished in water, or that it can express death in Christ—but because the Spirit of God continues to linger over the waters and, so by divine fiat, water is itself a source of sanctification. It is a proper sacramental sign since by revelation we know it is an outward sign of an inward grace in the operation of the Holy Spirit, much as by the words of institution by Christ, the bread and wine used as Mass are, indeed, the Body and Blood.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife

The recent discovery of the ancient Coptic manuscript purporting to Jesus speaking of his wife has rocked the world of both archeology and gynotheology. A team of scientists has concluded that the fragment, a mere 1 1/2" x 3 3/4" containing 33 words, is not a modern forgery.

Radiocarbon tests conducted at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced an origination date for the papyrus of 659-859 CE, according to Harvard. MIT also studied the chemical composition of the papyrus and patterns of oxidation.

Dr. Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School historian,  first announced the existence of the fragment in September 2012, at the International Coptic Congress in Rome, where she dubbed it "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife." Prof. King cautioned, that this miniscule fragment does not prove conclusively that Jesus was married.  Mr. Myron Leibermann, a junior account executive at Publicistas who are actively pursuing the branding rights for this product, concurred: "Sure we know that this little scrap proves nothing, but we think "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is a pretty sexy title for it --- you're only as good as the publicity you can generate. That's what makes coin!"

According to Dr. King, "This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family," King said.  She did not elaborate on how a fragmentary scrape from over six hundred years after Jesus lived, and well into the late Byzantine age when Christianity was already doctrinally solidified by the Great Ecumenical Councils, could given any reason for calling into question what the Church had long established.

"This papyrus apparently dates circa the Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD), at which point the Church was speaking to more mundane matters like whether Jesus could be depicted on icons, in response to the Iconoclastic Controversy under Emperor Leo III.  There is no evidence that any such debates were occurring among the orthodox catholic churches at the time this fragment dates, nor any time previously, except for bizarre gnostic sects like the Montanists and the author of the spurious Gospel of Philip", said Billy Chandler, a local area high school senior at Our Lady of Critical Thinking Catholic High School, who displayed a better grasp of early Christianity than the Harvard professor. 

Inexplicably, Dr, King opined: "The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued."

Other scholars point to the many examples of women who followed Jesus, were mothers and wives, served in the Church in caring for widows and orphans, opened their houses for early Christian worship and community, assisted to baptize women at the time when baptisms were in the nude, and even underwent torture and martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. "Hotly debated?  pfffft.... Hasn't she read the acts of Perpetua and Felicity? Perpetua was a married noblewoman with a suckling baby, and Felicity was pregnant at the time... which raises some questions about the conditions of their respective hymens", stated Dr. Jean Bolland, who holds the Delehaye Chair in Hagiography.

A careful study of the 7th to 9th century Coptic papyrus, read in the context of other ancient papyri troves such as  from Nag Hammadi and Oyxrhynchus, give a decidedly different possible explanation of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.

Dr. Benjamin Bell, a world renown papyrologist specializing in ancient Jewish humor in the middle Nile region, suggested that, "This is a wonderful rare find, a real treasure for us all.  Little is known about Jewish life in Egypt during the late Classical period apart from a few papryi. The persecutions under the goyim left the Jewish communities impoverished and tight-knit, but at least they retained their sense of humor. Based on the hand writing style this fragment appears to have come from the hills outside of Koptos where there was a thriving Jewish community in the late Byzantine age that specialized in self deprecating jokes".

Dr. Benjamin Bell, world renowned Egyptologist and specialist in ancient Jewish humor

Prof. Bell compared this to other ancient manuscripts, and suggested that this was a script from a precursor to the later Borscht Belt comedians. "The missing parts are contextually reclaimable:  "Jesus said to them, ' [take] my wife, [please]  ... [gevalt!] She will also be my disciple [? I was just looking for a date and a little hanky panky!]" 

Another interesting passage seems to be an early form of the old Semitic joke, "Let the wicked people swell up... [like the armpits infested by the fleas of a thousand camels]".   Dr. Bell suggested that the partial "my moth.." probably refers to another regional schtick, "[Just got back from a pleasure trip: I took] my moth[er-in-law to Cairo]".

Prof. Bell also pointed out  that other parts of the fragment appear to include the partial phrase: "I'll be [here all week, try the veal]" and "D[on't forget to tip your waite]r."  He indicated that a lot of Byzantine-era standup comics often stole material from each other, as evinced by the 5th century text from Schlomo the Pseudo-Goniff.  "But its all comedy gold," asserted Dr. Bell, "GOLD!".