Back in the days of the first Christians in Rome, it was a courageous and heroic thing to be baptised. In the days of the Emperor Nero and for several centuries, being baptised risked being put to death.
In the first place, ancient Rome was pagan territory. It was a city of the gladiators, where life was cheap. It was a land where human sacrifice and burnings and crucifixion were common place. In so far as we can say the Romans believed in the gods, we need to remember that their gods were often violent and vengeful. For the Romans, life was governed by fate. Life was fatalistic; humans had little choice or little chance in the face the dark brutality of the pagan gods.
When the first Christians were baptised, they rejected this pagan fatalism. They stood up and against a view of life that was bleak and hopeless. From the very beginning, the ceremony of baptism included – as still today – a firm rejection of evil, of Satan, of all his works and empty promises. When the first Christians presented themselves for baptism, they re-enacted the ‘standing up to Satan’ we see Jesus do in today’s Gospel.
These 40 days serve one particular purpose. Quite specifically, the 40 days of Lent are about getting us ready for Easter. And, as we know, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night is a celebration of our baptism when, once again, like the first Christians in the land of the Roman empire, we reject Satan and all its fatalism and we say yes to the God of Jesus Christ.
For whatever reason, our religion has been tamed to the point of being inoffensive and unremarkable. Being a baptised Christian has been reduced to morality or else to a form of lame spirituality with a touch of psychology – religion reduced to how to feel good or feel better about oneself.
But that’s not how it was for the first baptised Christians in pagan Rome. If we are to live out our faith today, it ought to puzzle and intrigue our contemporaries. That will require of us that we recover a sense of how God’s call will shake us up, undo and remake us, wring us out and renew the very core of our being. To be a Christian is to rediscover that we are called beyond all we can imagine, beyond the limits of our humanity, called to be conformed to God.
(cf. Timothy Radcliffe, Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation)