Immersed in ritual

31st March 2000 at 01:00
What do you wish for your child? What name do you choose for your child? Do you renounce Satan and all his evil ways?

Life is full of questions and, for some, religion has the answers. But that last question, the one they always ask the godparents at Catholic and Anglican baptisms, is a tricky concept for non-believers. Who is this Satan, anyway, they ask. Can he be all bad? Is the world really so black and white?

You'd better believe it. To Catholics and other Christians, baptism is a sacrament, the first step on the road to heaven. Without it, you won't get past the pearly gates. With it, you've joined the family of God, you are part of the church community. Baptism has cleansed your soul of original sin, altered the state of your soul. You stand alone before God. You've experienced the first ritual of life.

Aah, rituals. Everybody has their favourites. The Friday night film. The Saturday afternoon match. The Sunday roast. The Monday morning sickie.

But religious rituals are the originals. Rituals are the glue that keeps religions together, the practices that bind devotees to their creed, that define the way they think. And baptism expresses a basic human need to celebrate new life. Even non-believers such as humanists can't resist the comforting qualities of a baby-naming ceremony.

Every religion does things differently. The Catholic version is a restrained occasion - a trickle of water over the baby's head, the sign of the cross gently painted on the forehead. Those familiar, sacred symbols - the cross, the chrism (holy oil) and the candle. And the repeated, soothing words of the priest, like listening to the centuries speaking.

Followers of the Church of the Ltter Day Saints - Mormons - prefer total immersion and may be baptised several times in the name of their ancestors. But in every case water is a powerful symbol of cleansing, rebirth, of drowning and being saved.

The Coptic church, an orthodox branch of Christianity established by the inhabitants of ancient Egypt, was the main religion in the country until the Arab invasion of the 7th century. Now it is the minority and only one in 10 Egyptians - about six million people - are Copts.

The Copts are barred from teaching their history in schools, and claim persecution by the authorities. Dozens of people have been killed in violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. In these circumstances, religious rites of passage take on added significance.

Coptic baptisms are long, reverent occasions, with hushed incantations and atonal chanting. A child's cry breaks the reverie. "I baptise you," the priest says, dipping the baby up to his waist ("in the name of the Father") to his neck ("and the Son") and then plunging the infant under the water and pulling him out again ("and the Holy Ghost").

Gasping, crying, as smooth as a sucked boiled sweet, the babyis lifted from the baptismal waterand handed to his mother. He is baptised. In his life he may bemany things. He may be marriedand divorced, grow rich and then poor, endure sickness and health.But he can never be unbaptised.He belongs.

Weblinks Coptic Church home page: Guide to Jordan, land of holy pilgrimage and Jesus' baptism: "Official site for the persecuted", US based news and campaign information: Jerusalem history, guide and gifts:

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