There seems to be some confusion between those ceremonies which
mark entry into a religion by an adult convert and to which we
can apply the term initiation, and rites of passage as ceremonies
marking the stages of life of those born into a religious tradition.
Much of the confusion arises from the fact that religions themselves
change and adapt to different historical circumstances and that
some elements, like baptism in Christianity and circumcision in
Judaism, can be both a rite of passage and an initiation ceremony.
Historically both Hinduism and Judaism were religious and social
systems — ways of life — into which you were born. The important
stages of your life and growth were marked — not necessarily with
your assent — by the so-called rites of passage. When at different
times in their histories these two religions accepted converts
from outside they adapted in different ways. Initiation into Judaism
involves ritual bathing for men and women. Ritual washings of
various kinds are an integral part of Judaism but one total immersion
is now given a new context and meaning alongside these. It represents
new life, a naked return to suspension in the womb and birth as
a son or daughter of Abraham. For men there is also circumcision
which is already present as a rite of passage but now becomes
a feature of adult initiation as well. Adult initiation also involves
a full understanding, an acknowledgment of what the faith and
its responsibilities are — a feature not present in all of the
rites of passage. Entry into Hinduism is a much more blurred area.
Perhaps because of the influence of Neo-Vedantist views in the
main types of Hinduism that have attracted converts, there is
no hard and fast line between who is and who is not an adherent
of the Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Teaching). To adopt Hindu worship,
meditation, study or any other practices regularly is to count
oneself, and be accepted as, a Hindu.
The emergence of New Movements like Buddhism and Christianity
within the above traditions involved in some sense a new commitment
and change of life. Someone becoming a lay Buddhist would go to
the Buddha for help, adopt his teaching and support the bhikkhus
(members of the Sangha). Recitation of these three refuges — the
Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and an undertaking of the five precepts
is still the mark of becoming a Buddhist. They are repeated at
the beginning of almost all Buddhist ceremonies and so initiation
is regularly available and regularly renewed. There is more merit
in taking the refuges publically but this is not absolutely necessary.
The initiation of a bhikkhu is of course much more complex and
involves undertaking an additional five precepts and a whole range
of monastic rules. There is also a ceremony for the bhikkhu which
follows the Buddha’s own renunciation of the settled life of a
householder and involves shaving the head and putting on the patched
saffron robe. This Buddhist example shows that there may be more
than one level of initiation into a religion and that each can
have a similar sense of putting off the old and putting on the
When Buddhism and Christianity became majority religions or the
religions of established social groups the situation changed.
People born into a Buddhist or Christian family were counted as
members of the faith with or without an initiation ceremony at
birth. So infant baptism (which may or may not have been a part
of the New Testament baptism of whole households) becomes a rite
of passage and confirmation another. Here of course is raw material
for considerable theological controversy and practical confusion.
Putting off the Old—Putting on the New
The Early Christian Way The subject of Christian initiation is
taught in three main areas. The first is in New Testament Studies
when considering for example Jesus’ Baptism, the conversion of
individuals and whole households as recorded in the Book of Acts
or the theology of Romans 6. The second is in looking at the diversity
in Twentieth Century Christian belief and practice. The third
is in thematic work on the Rites of Passage in more than one religious
tradition. None of these use the material which I give below,
which seems to me to provide the most vivid illustration of Christian
Initiation and which invites imaginative participation, dramatic
re-enactment and an exploration of two of its key symbols — water
and light. The material comes from the Fourth Century of the Christian
Era when the Church’s liturgy had developed but not into the confusion
of practice we have today. Although there was some local diversity
the main elements recur in both Eastern and Western texts. The
following points follow the details given by Cyril of Jerusalem
(415 —386 CE).
|Christians had recently suffered considerable
persecution and within the memory of the older members of
the Church to take the stop of openly and formally becoming
a Christian involved the possibility of confiscation of property,
torture and death.
|Baptisms took place, whenever possible, on Easter Eve and
so were an organic part of the whole Church’s vigil, its awareness
of the darkness of the tomb before the kindling of light and
welcoming the dawn of the Resurrection. New vows were taken
and old vows renewed. The liturgical readings for Easter reflected
the baptismal theme — the story of passing through the waters
of the Red Sea at the Exodus, Jonah in the belly of the whale,
both of which prefigured baptism.
|The catechumens or baptisands had spent the forty days of
Lent in instruction, prayer and fasting in preparation for
|Early baptistries were separate (by room or building) from
the main body of the church so there was privacy for the nakedness
of the central rite and a sense of entering the church after
the baptismal rites were complete — to be present for the
first time at the central part of the Eucharist. Prior to
baptism catechumens had to depart (a phrase still retained
in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy though not enforced) before
the central mysteries were enacted.
| Cyril describes the assembly of the baptisands outside
the church, where they began by facing the West. West was
the direction of sunset (darkness) and (from Jerusalem) of
Egypt, which symbolises the slavery of the world. They stretch-
ed out their hands and ceremonially took leave of this world
of darkness before turning their back on it and facing the
East. The East was the direction of man’s intended condition,
the Garden of Eden, and also the direction from which the
Sun, and Christ, would rise again.
|Each then entered the building for baptism. The garments
of the old life were shed and candidates stood naked, as at
birth and as man is before his Judge.
|Baptism was by total immersion in a baptism pool. Immersion
was three times in the water, symbolising Christ’s three days
in the tomb and performed in the name of the three persons
of the Trinity. Baptism involved dying and rising again with
Christ — that salvation water was both your grave and your
|At each stage the baptisand was questioned and needed to
respond to show that he understood the faith and the step
he was taking.
|Immersion was followed by Chrismation — anointing with oil
— as a parallel to Christ’s being anointed with the Spirit.
Since Christos means the anointed one, identification with
Christ — Christening — was now complete.
|New and pure white garments were now put on and baptisands
were told that they should go “in white all your days . .
. in truly white and spiritual garments”. Then they entered
the church where the New light of the Easter candles would
People who wish to follow up this material might like to look
(a) P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Faber, 1967, p124/125.
(b) ed. Jones, Wainwright & Yamold, The Study of Liturgy,
Mowbrays, 1978, Section II. This book has extensive bibliographies.
(c) A. Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, S.P.C.K., 1974.