Initiation and rites of passage

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 new.

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).

1. 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.
2. 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.
3. The catechumens or baptisands had spent the forty days of Lent in instruction, prayer and fasting in preparation for their baptism.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 Mother.
8. At each stage the baptisand was questioned and needed to respond to show that he understood the faith and the step he was taking.
9. 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.
10. 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 welcome them.

People who wish to follow up this material might like to look at:

(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.

Back to top