Early Christian Baptismal Imagery for Today
Robin M. Jensen’s book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity illuminates and illustrates the multiple meanings and biblical metaphors of baptism. It can awaken imagination for Christians and congregations to live into their baptized identity.
Remember the classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit? It’s about a stuffed bunny that comes to life because a boy loves him. When David Rylaarsdam read the book to his youngest child at age five, Simon said, “That's kind of like baptism, isn't it?”
Rylaarsdam recalls, “I didn't make the connection immediately, so I asked Simon what he meant, and he said, ‘At our baptism, God tells us he loves us, so we can have new life.’”
Many Christians know only one meaning of baptism, usually either cleansing from sin or initiation into the community of faith. Some of us think of baptism as a single moment in time. Simon is growing up experiencing baptism as his identity. That’s partly because his parents and two older siblings began celebrating “baptism birthdays” when Simon was three.
“Baptism celebrations can give people a lens, or filter, through which they view the world,” explains Rylaarsdam, who teaches historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Now, a new book by the world’s leading expert on early Christian worship and art offers a way for more of us to experience baptism as a lifelong conversion to God’s wide, long, high, and deep love. The book is Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions by Robin Margaret Jensen, who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.
Learning from Christianity’s first 400 years
When Rylaarsdam’s seminary students read Irenaeus, Tertullian, Didymus the Blind, and Cyril of Jerusalem, they learn that early Christian baptism was a ritual with several stages. Early Christians not only heard scripture, but saw and experienced it, because their worship was rich with biblical symbols and images. Each baptismal element, including the water type and font shape, proclaimed biblical teaching.
But reading early Christian writings on baptism tells only half the story. It’s like reading the script for a play (or cuddling a stuffed bunny). The whole drama comes alive only when you open your heart to how God also meets us through visuals, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, and movements.
That’s why Robin Jensen has devoted her life to discovering the rituals, symbols, art, and architecture in early Christians’ lived experience of faith. Her teaching and books make the case that art is essential to shaping religious experience. Our responses to God’s actions “often resist explanation in words, reminding us that we can know or learn things without the benefit of language,” she writes in The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community.
Her book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity enlivens the biblical, historical, and theological texts about baptism with photographs of art from early century catacombs, stone coffins, mosaics, baptismal fonts, and baptisteries. Although baptism details varied by time and place, Jensen’s catalogue of imagery reveals five core motifs of baptism.
Baptism as washing
Jensen explains that the most ancient understanding of baptism is as a bath that washes away sin and sickness. The gospels report that John the Baptist called people to repent of sin and be baptized for forgiveness. First Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-26, Hebrews 10:22, and other New Testament passages talk about being washed and sanctified in God’s name and word and having “hearts sprinkled clean.”
Early Christians wondered why a sinless Jesus asked to be baptized. Justin Martyr explained, as Jensen quotes, “Just as he condescended to birth and suffered crucifixion, Jesus submitted to baptism in order to enter, transform, and redeem the human race from the power of sin and death.” Ignatius and Cyril of Jerusalem said that Jesus was baptized so he could cleanse and sanctify the water for everyone baptized ever after.
Preachers searched the Scriptures for stories and images that prefigure baptismal healing, such as Naaman being healed of leprosy after dipping seven times in the Jordan River. Baptism sermons and art often portrayed Jesus healing the lame man who had no one to dip him into the pool of Bethesda, and Jesus putting spit and mud on a blind man’s eyes and directing him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The earliest surviving church—the third-century Dura Europos house church discovered in 1921 in Syria—has a painting of the lame man’s healing in its baptismal room.
Most people were baptized at Easter. John Chrysostom compared the weeks before baptism to wrestlers training for a big match. Giving up baths from the beginning of Lent till Holy Thursday helped baptismal candidates experience the difference between a life of sin and a life of being washed clean. They fasted, gave food and clothes to the needy, and forgave debts owed to them. Before entering the baptismal chamber, they renounced Satan and swore allegiance to Christ.
Four more ways to convert baptismal imagination
But baptism is even more than being washed clean of sin and sickness. Over time the church added layers of meaning to help Christians experience baptism as a lasting change. Three motifs—community membership, illumination, and rebirth—made baptism a rite of initiation. The final motif, new creation, reminded Christians that baptism calls us all, as individuals and the church, to a distinctive and changed way of life.
Jensen’s book explains how all these motifs flow from biblical themes. For example, Ephrem of Syria wrote a hymn about older sheep running to embrace new lambs added to the flock. Singing it reminded worshipers that baptism incorporates us into a new community led by the Good Shepherd.
The Bible compares milk to God’s nourishing word, so the first meal after baptism sometimes included honeyed milk. This symbolized how the Holy Spirit lovingly sanctifies us and illuminates scripture on our journey to the Promised Land.
Architects designed some baptistery buildings to look like a mausoleum, a building used for tombs. The fonts inside were often shaped like a womb or a cross. The message was that baptism means rebirth, or dying and rising with Christ.
Some baptisteries were octagonal to signify “the eighth day…the first day of the new creation, the day on which Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and the day on which the world will be renewed,” Jensen explains. Many early Christian baptisteries were decorated with deer drinking water, surrounded by birds, fish, lush vines, and fruit trees. In some communities, people chanted or sang Psalm 42 (“as the deer pants for the water”) on their way to be baptized. The message was that baptism promises a new creation that restores all things.
Read and discuss Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions by Robin Margaret Jensen. Listen to archived Calvin Symposium on Worship seminars on early Christian worship and sacramental practice.
David Rylaarsdam’s family celebrates their baptism birthdays every year with a simple liturgy (prayer, song, creed, one-minute explanation of one baptism meaning or biblical image) and cake. He used this baptism birthday liturgy for his son Simon’s 11th baptism birthday. “I want my kids' mission in the world to be rooted in their baptism identity, with all the comfort and challenge it brings,” Rylaarsdam says.
Check out some of Cyril of Jerusalem’s annotated baptism sermons in Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John D. Witvliet.
Request visuals from the International Catacomb Society. Buy art prints or digital usage rights of Jan Richardson’s “Born of Water, Born of Spirit.” Apply Betsy Halstead Steele’s advice for planning visuals in worship. Regina Kuehn’s book A Place for Baptism illustrates the symbolism of baptismal font shapes.
Learn from this Calvin Theological Seminary Forum conversation about how grace abounds in baptism.
Explore these resources for including and deepening baptismal themes in worship.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church staff, board, arts, or worship meeting. These questions will help your group talk about how to deepen baptismal identity in your congregation:
- Which meanings of baptism are you most and least familiar with?
- Which biblical metaphors for baptism would you like to highlight in your own life and the life of your church? What first steps could you take to do so?
- What do you think about Robin Jensen’s claim that art is essential in shaping religious experience? How comfortable are you with meeting God through your senses when you can’t explain this knowledge with words?