On Ash Wednesday, we hold a service of Holy Communion to mark the beginning of the season of Lent. It became the custom of the early Church to prepare for Holy Week and Easter with a season of prayer and fasting. This provided a time when converts to the faith were prepared for admission to membership in the church through Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. The whole congregation was reminded of the message of pardon and reconciliation proclaimed by the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
Baptism is required of all who would become members of Amelia Plantation Chapel where I serve as Pastor. Since most members come to us from other churches where they have been baptized we receive them on their reaffirmation of faith and the renewal of their baptismal vows as set forth in our Covenant. However it is important to remember the significance baptism holds for us in the Scriptures and in church tradition. In the Old Testament initiation into the covenant people of God was through circumcision. In the New Testament this was replaced with baptism. “In him you were also circumcised in the putting off of the sinful nature not with a circumcision done by the hand of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)
One of the earliest descriptions of baptism by which a person was made a member of the church appears in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (AD 150). The moral significance of baptism is emphasized, through reference to the candidates’ intention to live according to the truth of Christianity which he has learned and now professes to believe. While fasting, the candidates pray for the forgiveness of sins, supported by the prayer and fasting of the whole community. The passage suggests that the rite of initiation implies a transformed life. Baptism does not stand alone. It follows upon instruction in Christian truth and a period of testing. Similarly, in the Chapel Covenant which new members must sign, they “now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as become the followers of Christ.”
As in the early church the Chapel believes that commitment to Christ through baptism has profound implications for one’s moral life. Just as the first Christians had to make a break with the pagan world, the flesh and the devil, to become Christians, so the church today must make a stand against the immorality accepted by our secular culture. Lent is a time to remind ourselves of who we are and whom we follow.