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Questions about Easter, baptism, and the renewal of life

It’s Good Friday and a good time to discuss the reflection and renewal that many Christians seek on Easter Sunday. The day commemorating Jesus’s resurrection, Easter marks the end of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance. In the early church, baptism and Easter were strongly linked. The long and arduous induction of new members into the Christian community involved weeks of ascetic practices and twice-daily instructions, followed by a nude plunge into a pool on Easter morning and triple immersion there. Then the “newborn” led the community to the Easter celebration. We sat down with Garry Wills, author of the new book Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism, to discuss the role of baptism in the lives of two early Christian saints: Augustine and Ambrose.

Who was St Augustine of Hippo?

Augustine was born 354 CE in Roman Africa (modern Algeria) to a small landholder. Though thoroughly trained in rhetoric, he never learned Greek, the language of fourth century intelligentsia, or Berber, the language of his native Africa. He is the only major thinker of Late Antiquity who was monolingual (Latin), which cut him off from some intellectual trends. By compensation, he made himself the most original Christian thinker of all time, plumbing the inner life of his own mind to explore the inner life of God in works like The Confessions and The Trinity. He was forced against his inclination to become a priest and bishop, but he did not leave Africa after his one trip to Italy, where he was baptized.

Who was Ambrose?

He was the fourth century bishop of Milan when that city was the capitol of the Western Roman Empire (Rome had been abandoned as action against “barbarians” moved to the north). Ambrose had been a secular governor of the province before being forced into the bishop’s office, where he successfully defied three Roman emperors, with whom he shared the city of Milan.

What was Augustine’s relationship to Ambrose?

Augustine went to Milan when he was thirty and Ambrose was forty-four. It is often thought that Augustine was “converted” by Ambrose, but he was not. He met a circle of Christian Platonists in Milan who removed his doubts about Christianity. Though he resisted and resented the overbearing Ambrose, he asked to be baptized by him and Ambrose obliged.

In the 1940s, the baptismal pool where this occurred was rediscovered. Intervening centuries had buried the baptistry, along with Ambrose’s own cathedral, under the piazza of the present cathedral. It is an obscure but moving site of the early church, which can be visited but rarely is.

The site recalls what an intense experience was early baptism. It was preceded by a Lent-long period of penitence and fasting, with the bishop giving two instructions a day on the meaning of the faith. Then, after total immersion in the baptismal pool at dawn on Easter day, the new Christians celebrated their new life for a week, wearing their white baptismal robes while they heard seven more daily sermons from the bishop.

What effect did this have on Augustine?

Despite his initial distrust of Ambrose, whom he considered a demagogue, Augustine chose to learn under his instruction. In these long sessions, Augustine gained a whole new approach to the Bible, especially to the Old Testament, which he absorbed, reflected on, and refined for the rest of his life.

Why did Augustine not respond at first to Ambrose?

Ambrose was a tough and trained ruler who instilled in his priests the self-discipline of the ancient Roman senatorial class. But he also knew how to make a populist appeal to his congregation, introducing liturgical practices that inspired great unity and support for him.

Augustine was an emotional African of a scholarly and retiring bent, one who took up the duties of a bishop, back in Africa, with confusion and regret. But he learned in time to value some of the popular teaching and governing methods of Ambrose. He was the thinker, Ambrose the doer. They were an odd couple who, between them, fashioned the actions and thinking of the church for centuries to come.

Garry Wills is the author of many books, including Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism, Bomb Power, What Jesus Meant, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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