It should be obvious by now that the Christian community stood out in their cultural context. The were different from the people around them; sometimes this difference elicited great hatred, but in many cases it resulted in more people joining the family. And joining the family was not taken lightly. “A process of examination, instruction, and ritual rehabituated the candidates for conversion, re-reflexing them into the lifestyle of an alternative community.” Notice the word “rehabituated” – their actual habits were changed from one set to another. Today we’re going to look at the four stages in this process of “resocialization.”
Stage One: Evangelization – The period of informal contact between Christians and potential believers. I don’t want to make it sound too technical – often it was just simple friendship (not putting invisible targets on the backs of non-Christians and going after them). What they called the stage of “evangelization” ended when persons were admitted by the church for further instruction. Basically, if a friend inquired about becoming a Christian, you would take them to the leaders of the church, where they would be interviewed to determine if they were “capable of hearing the word.” They were not welcomed frivolously with open arms but (along with their Christian friend) were asked about their social status, jobs, behavior, etc. For example, if they were engaged in behavior the church repudiated – idolatry, astrology, bloodshed, sexual looseness – “Let them cease [i.e. change their behavior] or be rejected.” For a specific example, if they were in the military they had to promise not to kill in order to be accepted as a catechumen (potential disciple). This may seem harsh, legalistic, and backwards to us, but as Kreider points out, “The early Christian catechists were attempting . . . to nurture communities whose values would be different from those of conventional society. Christian leaders assumed that people did not think their way into a new life; they lived their way into a new kind of thinking.” (Which means there has to be more to this than simply “teaching” or passing on information.) The leaders knew that the person’s lifestyle and commitments would determine whether they would even be capable of hearing what the church considered good news.
Stage Two: Catechism – The period of instruction aimed at transforming a person’s behavior. The student is not yet considered a Christian, but they are no longer conventional pagans either. Together with their sponsor (the friend from stage one), they would go multiple times a week to receive instruction early in the morning. After instruction they spent time in prayer, the Christians together and the catechumen in reflective solitude. This period could last up to three years (!); the point, however, was not duration but conversion, so it was often much shorter than that. It’s important to emphasize that the actual timeline was flexible and depended on discerning the specifics of a person’s story. Also crucial during this period was the example of Christians, especially but not exclusively their sponsor. After a time, when the person was ready they would to go the leaders for a second interview/meeting, and if their lives were sufficient (if they honored the widows, visited the sick, abstained from sexual sin, etc), they were invited to “hear the gospel” – stage three.
Stage Three: Enlightenment – The period of instruction that focused on the content of Christian beliefs. Note that (at least in the official records) this period followed that of life change. They candidates attended instruction daily during this period, receiving orthodox teachings as well as instruction on exorcisms (which, let us remember, had everything to do with escaping what we call “addictions”) and the Lord’s Prayer (most likely). This period culminated in their baptism, which was preceded by a third and final interview/scrutiny (which included an exorcism). The baptisms typically took place on the Saturday before Easter. They were baptized naked (to symbolize the departure from their old way of life). They renounced Satan and were dipped into the water three times, confessing their faith in the Father, Son, and Spirit. They were then given a new set of clothes and welcomed as a full-fledged member of the family – which truly functioned like a family, after which they took their first Eucharist.
Stage Four: Mystagogy – I’m not sure if this stage was as important. I think it basically refers to the new disciple’s public sharing (a week later) of their journey in which they explained the whole experience.
Well, there you have it! That takes me back to the question about why in the world anyone would go through all this. Apparently their lives were “question-posing” in the extreme! Can you imagine asking someone to go through that today?