All our church rituals and practices serve the purpose of forming and shaping our common life and our mission in the world. Our sacramental rituals are commonly recognized as baptism, catechism (preaching or teaching) and the Lord’s Supper (also known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion). It’s helpful to think of these three ritual practices as a solid three legged stool on which each leg helps support the other two.
It’s instructive to study how these signs were understood and practiced in the early centuries of church history. This can inform our efforts to renew these rituals and breath new life into them today. We don’t want to legalistically follow earlier practices but instead learn from the way they formed Christian lives and undergirded the mission of the community of faith.
for example, between the second and fifth centuries initiation into Christian faith began with a three-year period of catechism. After a final examination the candidate was anointed with oil as a ritual of exorcism, followed by making a personal profession of faith. Baptism took place by immersion during the Easter season where the candidate took of his or her old clothes, symbolizing dying to the old self. Upon emerging from the water, the candidate was then given a clean, white robe symbolized being raised to a new life. The candidate then participated in the Easter communion service as a full church member.
A common problem is that all three of these signs are often understood in a mechanical way as magically imparting God’s grace and salvation. When that happens they are thought of as ends in themselves rather than serving as a means to form Christian lives and celebrate the shared life of the faith community. All denominations recognize this problem but for those of us in the Anabaptist tradition it becomes especially problematic because of our commitment to the church as a voluntary community of faith where authentic Christian lives are formed.
Baptism, catechism, and communion are the traditional core Christian rites. This doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones. We can certainly include things such as giving and receiving council within the fellowship, congregational singing, or marriages and funerals. Yet, we can also think of these other rituals as further expressions of our three core rites. What’s important is that all are organically integrated into the life and mission of the Christian fellowship.
I will consider ways this can be done in my next post. For example, we will want to consider the relationship between communion, church potlucks, church work days, and supporting people in need.