Culture and Baptism

by Dan Benedict
We are increasingly aware that underneath the recovery of the catechumenate in our churches, there is an order (ordo) a common pattern: formation in faith and baptizing in water together, leading to participation in the life of the community. 1

We could expand this pattern to include the broader life of the faith community to include proclamation/evangelization, conversion, profession of faith, water bath, meal and Christian formation/life in community. 2

In other words, the catechumenate is integral to the pattern of ecclesial life wherever the church engages the world with the gospel.

The Rev. F. Kabasele Lumbala, a liturgy scholar and teacher, describes baptism on Easter Eve in Zaire. In the stages prior
to baptism, the candidates for baptism are confined for a period of asceticism and intense prayer, and then opening the mind with
instruction and practice. (He narrates the baptism with exclusively masculine pronouns, so you may want to read the account in a
more inclusive way.)
After the readings and the homily —
  • Proclamation of faith and renunciation of Satan.
  • Miming death-resurrection: The candidates are told to lie down on mats; they are covered with banana leaves; a penitence of mourning song is struck up, or simply silence is kept. The priest moves forward holding the candidate’s right arm. He raises it shouting in a strong voice: “Christ has risen from the tomb, living for ever. You too, live with him, rise.”

As the candidate is getting up, Psalm 117 (118): 16-17 is sung: “The right hand of the Lord has risen, the right hand of the Lord has performed a feat of strength. No, I shall not die, I shall live to tell the Lord’s works.”

  • Water rite: Water is poured on the candidate’s head while the trinitarian formula is recited, and incense is wafted around the newly baptized.
  • Conferring the new name: When the priest asks the godfather to tell him the candidate’s name, the godfather answers by reciting his godchild’s genealogies, at the end of which he pronounces the name chosen for baptism as the “crowning” of his identity. Once the godfather has finished, the priest greets the newly baptized adult in a special way, solemnly pronouncing his new name aloud. He shakes his hand warmly. The name is no longer necessarily a Western Christian name of some saint. It can be chosen in the local culture, provided that it is in connection with God’s gift.
  • Godfather’s commitment: The priest invites the godfather to commit himself to his role as guide in the godchild’s faith. The godfather then takes hold of a tool of his trade (a hoe for farmers, a book for teachers or office workers, a measuring instrument for traders). He does a dance step or simply walks round his godchild, then come and takes up position in front of the priest, to whom he holds out the tool. The priest blesses it, informing him that from now onwards all his activities will have to proclaim salvation in Christ.
  • Confirmation ointment: The priest lays his hands on the baptized person and anoints him on the forehead.
  • Ointment with white kaolin (white clay): The priest puts some white kaolin on the candidate’s arms, cheeks, and feet, telling him he is a new being with new status in the church and wishing him fruitfulness and prosperity in his baptismal commitment. He makes him pass in front of the congregation, saying: “Just as Christ has passed from this world to his Father, in the same way N. has passed from the bondage of sin to liberation, from death to life. What has just been fulfilled to him is what we have to live, all of us who have been baptized. Let us applaud N. and exult with jubilation.” A song of joy and a hallelujah are struck up. The offerings are presented and the eucharist takes place, during which the newly baptized will accede to the table of the Lord. 3

 

Lumbala notes that in Bantu perception baptism restores the harmony lost in the disruption of creation by sin. The godfather’s dance around the godchild is a sign of this harmonization. Following his narrative of adult baptism, he describes baptism of infants with additional insights into the relationship of rites and culture.

 

The point of sharing this account is to illustrate inculturation of the ordo of baptism. It invites NAAC practitioners to rejoice in
the rich diversity of baptismal practice and to reflect on our own enactments of initiation.

 

Notes
1 “Report of the Consultation,” in Becoming Christian: The Ecumenical Implications of Our Common Baptism (Faith and Order Paper No. 184; ed. Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1999) §4, §19-20, pp. 75, 77.
2 See Susan K. Wood’s “Is Baptism Complete or Part of a LargerChristian Initiation? A Dialogue with Lutheran Sacramental Theology” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring, 2015 Volume 17, Number 2, p. 38.
3 “Black Africa and Baptismal Rites” in Becoming Christian, pp. 37-38.

Dan Benedict is an elder (presbyter) in The United Methodist Church. He has long been involved with NAAC and the catechumenate. He is a brother in The Order of Saint Luke and lives in Hawaii.

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