Baptism is Restoration to Paradise

‘Today you shall be with me in paradise,’ Jesus says to the thief, and where Christ is, there too is the Church. Richard Field (1561–1616), in his treatise Of the Church sees, in the thief’s acknowledgement of his sinful past and his prayer that Jesus remember him in his kingdom, a form of baptism. In the Primitive Church, baptism was seen as the restoration to paradise. Cyril of Jerusalem uses this symbolism of the baptismal rite. ‘When you renounce Satan, God’s paradise opens to you, the paradise he planted in the East and from which our first father was driven on account of his disobedience … the symbol of this is your turning from the East to the West’(Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, NPNF vol vii, Lect xix, p146). In contrast to Adam in Satan’s control and driven out of Paradise, the catechumen is freed by the New Adam from Satan’s dominion and reintroduced into Paradise. Turning to Christ is the act of faith required for Baptism. Entering the Baptistery signifies entrance into the Church, the return to Paradise. The catechumen is addressed, ‘You are outside of Paradise, O catechumen … you share the exile of Adam, our first father. Now the door is opening. Return whence you came forth.’ Cyril addresses each candidate, ‘Soon Paradise will open for each one of you.’

This symbolism decorated baptisteries. Often Christ was represented as the Good Shepherd surrounded by his sheep. In a paradisal setting of trees, flowers and fountains, the baptistery of Dura (third century) shows us opposite to the representation of Christ, that of the fall of Adam. It depicts the Paradise from which he was driven out and to which baptism restores us. A feature of such decorations is a deer drinking at the springs, and alludes to Psalm 42, ‘Like as the hart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God.’ It symbolizes the thirst of the catechumens to receive baptism. Sometimes the deer had a serpent in its mouth, because ancient science claimed that only deer could kill snakes, and that this made them thirsty. This symbolized that only after killing the serpent, that is rejecting Satan, can the catechumen come to the water of baptism. So the deer having eaten the serpent quenches its thirst at the river of paradise. This summarized for catechumens all the stages of their baptismal initiation. Some years ago I commissioned the artist Sep Waugh to design a baptistery window for me on this theme.

Symbolic Shape

The shape of baptisteries is also symbolic, often octagonal, and this is seen in the inscription on the baptistery of the church of St Thecla in Milan, which was that of St Ambrose. The inscription says: ‘It is fitting that the hall of Holy Baptism should be built according to this number, which is that in which the people obtained true salvation in the light of the risen Christ.’ Sometimes the font was in the shape of a womb to signify rebirth.

In ancient Christianity the number 8 was the symbol of the Resurrection, because on the day after the Sabbath, the eighth day, Christ rose from the dead. The seven days of the week are an image of the time of this world, and the eighth day of life everlasting. Sunday is the liturgical commemoration of this eighth day, a memorial of the Resurrection and a prophecy of the world to come. On the Lord’s day, the first day of the new creation, rooted in the resurrection of Christ, Christ the Life and Light of men, comes into the midst of his own at the weekly Easter. To partake of the life of God is to participate in that which is beyond time. So the eighth day becomes the figure of life everlasting, the symbol of eternity in which we live now because of Christ. This is the day without evening, the last day because no other day can follow eternity.

Into this eighth day, inaugurated by Christ, the Christian enters by his baptism. This is very ancient baptismal symbolism and St Peter may well be alluding to it in his first epistle 3.20: ‘… and in the ark, a few persons, eight in all, were brought to safety through the water. This water prefigured the water of baptism through which you are now brought to safety.’

‘Today you will be with me in paradise’

In Paradisum

The prayer for the blessing of water in the Apostolic Constitutions says, ‘Sanctify this water, that those who are baptized in it may be crucified with Christ, die with him, be buried with him, and rise again through adoption’ (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII, p477).

As the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the downfall of the old Adam, the tree of the Cross is the way of salvation in the New Adam. The route into paradise is through immersion in the water of the life-giving Spirit that conforms us to the likeness of Christ’s death that we might live in its resurrectional power.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Honorary Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College.