Situated within this Roman demonstration of ecological control, we can see more clearly the counter-imperial significance of early Christian baptism. The declaration of Christ’s Lordship over the baptized person in effect set apart baptismal water from its Roman possession and dedicated it to a different Lord, a different King. From Rome to Corinth, from Philippi to Thessalonica, small communities constituted by Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, males and females, were returning the waters of the earth to their rightful owner, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The baptism rite revealed to the world that God has exalted his Son to the highest place and given him the name above all names, before whom all knees would one day bow and to whom all tongues would finally confess: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” As such, baptism would have had profound counter-imperial significance. Christian baptism signified that the world, the created order, was no longer under the control of Caesar; it was now, in the midst of the sacred space of the church, a material expression of the redeeming purposes of God and his Christ, the true Lord of the cosmos.
As such, baptism in a very real way incorporated the whole of Roman-dominated ecology into itself. By the third-century, the baptismal ritual began with exorcisms over the water, which was associated with the kingdom of the dead in ancient mythology. As death was the domain of Satan, the fourth-century theologian Cyril of Jerusalem could speak of baptism as a victory over the demonic forces indwelling the waters (Catechetical Lectures, III:10). Not only did the catechumenate undergo exorcism, but Christ’s conquering the seas of death meant that the spirit of evil was exorcised from the entire sacred space surrounding the baptismal font. Hence, baptism functioned as the beginning of the recreation of the entire cosmos.
One of the earliest baptismal practices, as witnessed most explicitly by the Syrian Theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, was the initiates’ wearing of sackcloth before their baptisms, signifying the garments of shame when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. The garments were then removed, exposing the initiates’ nakedness (most likely undergarments). The initiates were then baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and upon coming out of the water, they were clothed with a “wholly radiant” white garment, signifying their transference back into the garden, consummated by their eating of the Eucharist, the Tree of Life restored.
The historic practice of Christian baptism reveals a distinctively ecological and moral vision of the human person. We are, in our nakedness, characterized by a sinful state, having been expelled from paradise, in full need of a sanctifying redemption. And this redemption comes through the restoration of paradise in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Christ, who incorporates the totality of the cosmos into his transformative life, death, and resurrection. Thus, through baptism, the very waters by which the baptized person is transformed are themselves transformed. The water of baptism is being redeemed right along with the human person, so that creature and creation are already experiencing the beginning of the new creation in Christ.
In this modern day and age, we are in desperate need of this ecological and moral vision of baptism. For such a vision can once again transfer the waters of our industrialized world away from its secular possession and return them to their true Lord, the restorer of paradise, our original and everlasting home.
For more on baptism and the Apostle Paul's vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.