As the solemn season of Lent culminates with Easter Sunday, hundreds of South Floridians are beginning a new life of faith by participating in an ancient Christian tradition that dates back to Old Testament times — baptism.
Some will immerse themselves in the ocean at Calvary Chapel Miami Beach’s early morning Easter Sunday service. Others — more than 500 — were welcomed into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigils throughout South Florida parishes. And still others signaled their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior by dunking themselves in the cold waters of a Rubbermaid garden container on Holy Thursday.
Stephanie Bagen was one of 11 women who allowed herself to be submerged in a poignant ceremony that was punctuated by tears and cheers, applause and prayers. The women, along with caseworkers and family members, gathered in the courtyard of Agape Network, a non-denominational, faith-based addiction treatment center in South Miami-Dade, to be baptized.
“I want to thank the Lord for giving me a second chance,” Bagen said before lowering herself into the makeshift baptismal font.
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Then Agape chaplain Laura Dahne whispered the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit … ” and, with the help of Cary Navarro, slowly immersed the 33-year-old into the water.
For Bagen, Thursday’s baptism marked a rebirth, a spiritual rejuvenation that has strong ties to Easter, the most-important holiday in the Christian calendar and whose message of resurrection and rebirth will ring out across the world on Easter Sunday.
Bagen’s spiritual journey has been long and circuitous, with many tests of both faith and resiliency.
Adopted by her paternal aunt when she was six months old after the state took her away from an alcoholic biological mother, Bagen grew up Catholic and was baptized in that faith. But, she says, she never found what she needed while going to Mass and attending Catholic schools. A series of abusive relationships and an unhealthy addiction to drugs landed her at Agape, the second time in more than five years. But on this overcast, overly warm spring afternoon, baptism beckoned as a promise of love and redemption.
“It’s a confirmation of what I believe,” Bagen said. “It’s like dying, like entering this watery grave, and then being born again.”
[Baptism] is a confirmation of what I believe. It’s like dying, like entering this watery grave, and then being born again
Stephanie Bagen, baptized on Holy Thursday
Saturday evening Vicki Voitik of Pembroke Pines received baptism during the Easter Vigil at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Southwest Ranches. She underwent six months of religious instruction through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a church program for newcomers to the faith, and believes the effort was well worth it. Voitik, 62, had been thinking of joining the church since 1993, when she married her second husband.
“I believed in the Catholic faith for a long time, but I never had education in it until now,” she said. “It finally happened.”
The idea of a rebirth and the promise of a fresh beginning are closely tied to the belief in Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
“Baptism is literally a rebirth,” explained Stephen Colella, the Archdiocese of Miami’s director of Evangelization and Parish Life. “Easter, liturgically, is the highest expression of that.”
Baptism is literally a rebirth. Easter liturgically is the highest expression of that
Stephen Colella, Archdiocese of Miami’s director of Evangelization and Parish Life.
And while that tenet of dying an old life and being born to a new life in the Holy Spirit is held by believers across the various Christian faiths, not all of them agree on what baptism represents and when it can be administered.
For Catholics, baptism is the first of the sacraments and an important one because it washes away original sin, a sin inherited from Adam’s and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden.
“It is not a symbolic sacrament for us,” Colella said. “It is an actual and literal change in our nature. When we are baptized, we believe that original sin is cured. We are completely cleansed of that sin and any sin we have until then.”
In the Catholic Church, as well as some of the older Protestant faiths, baptism is a necessary initiation that begins a person’s commitment to a new religious life. Traditionally infants and children can be baptized with the help of believers (usually parents and godparents) who step in for the child before the church community.
Adults entering the Catholic Church, on the other hand, usually undergo several months of religious training before receiving baptism, as Voitik did. Those who do this speak of a spiritual awakening.
“It didn’t come all at once for me,” Voitik said. “It was a gradual thing. You know this is where you want to be.”
At Agape Network, where Bagen was baptized, the rite of baptism has a different connotation. Though encouraged, baptism is not an essential part of being saved. It is “the public declaration of a person’s faith,” said Chaplain Dahne. “In this case, it’s a lover’s gesture of faithfulness.”
Among evangelicals and modern Protestants, infants and children are not baptized but dedicated within the church community because, being so young, they cannot act out of their own free will. What’s more, one can choose to be baptized more than once.
Though the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist is the best known Biblical reference, the beloved ritual is mentioned frequently throughout the New Testament, said David Kling, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami. And even before then, the symbol of water as a cleansing and rejuvenation agent dates back millenniums and is certainly not a Christian invention.
For early Christians, baptism was a rite undertaken by adults, with the help of sponsors and preceded by fasting and prayer. This preparation was often done in the days leading up to Easter.
“Not until the fourth century did infant baptism become more common,” Kling added, “and that was a result of the doctrine of original sin” formulated by the writings of St. Augustine.
Centuries later and continents away, baptism remains an event full of hope, forgiveness, acceptance and renewal.
“I’ve made mistakes, but I’m always brought back to Jesus Christ,” Bagen said before her baptism. “It’s a way of renewing the convenient and it’s a way of making me whole. I want to live with peace, not chaos.”