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Underwater Prayers

A room used for baptisms.
The main gathering room is larger,
but the wall art did not survive.
In the barren Syrian desert, near the Euphrates, are the ruins of a once-thriving Roman settlement: Dura-Europos.  The town was destroyed by Persians in the middle of the third century, never to be rebuilt.   Around the year 235 the houses along the inside of the western wall were vacated and incorporated into widening and strengthening the city wall.  Ironically, it was this very act that means several of these houses, complete with wall art, were buried under rubble and preserved for 1800 years.  A few of the houses have been painstakingly restored.

One of those was a house remodeled into a small synagogue.  Amazingly, however, another one was clearly a house that had been radically renovated, complete with artwork, to serve as a church building.  This demonstrates, as historians have long insisted, that the imperial persecutions of the Roman Empire were sporadic and largely ignored in the frontier provinces.  It has a main meeting room that would have held at least 40 people.  There is also a room for baptisms.  And, it is in this baptism room, that some of the wall art survived.  This wall art gives an amazing glimpse into ordinary Christian worship and devotion in the era of Marcus Aurelius.

There are four scenes, all about Jesus and all taken from the gospels.  Jesus is shown as the good shepherd, Jesus is shown healing the paralyzed man, Jesus and Peter are shown walking on the water, and two women are drawn approaching a tomb.  All of them would have importance for those participating in baptisms. All of the artwork, unlike what is found in post-Constantine churches, is clearly done by local people who were not gifted or professional artists.

The Good Shepherd
Over the stone baptistery is a simple painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  He is walking with a lamb held on his shoulders.  This image, in one form another, occurs so often in ancient Christian art it must have been a deeply meaningful image to the early Christians.  In baptism we give ourselves our to the Good Shepherd, who has laid down His life for the sheep.

On the side wall is a large painting of two women coming to a tomb.  Here, as in all the little church's wall art, people appear more Roman than Jewish.  This simply reflects the truth that people tend to see Bible people and stories in whatever styles of dress and appearance would seem normal to them.  In Renaissance Italy, Jesus looks Italian.  In Ethiopian art, He looks African.  And, yes, in the paining in your grandparent's house He probably looks suspiciously European or American.

Approaching the Empty Tomb
The resurrection of Christ was, of course, central to the whole of the Christian faith.  It would also have been a key idea presented in early Christian baptisms.  As Paul says, through baptism we are raised up to newness a life.  Since the first witnesses to the resurrection, in all four gospels, are women, the scene would have been instantly understandable to anyone being baptized.

The Paralyzed Man Healed
And, there are two smaller scenes drawn from the gospels:  In one of them, Jesus is directing a man to carry his sleeping mat.  Another man in the drawing seems to be lying down and beginning to sit up.  This may depict a person being baptized, the paralyzed man before being healed, or, perhaps most intriguing, Jesus raising Lazarus or someone else from the dead.  In any case, it is a powerful image of how Jesus delivers people from the debilitating paralysis of sin and death.

The last scene is of Peter and Jesus walking on the water.  It shows that moment when Peter is starting to sink and Jesus is reaching out to him. Showing the women coming to the tomb, and Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Jesus as the healer would be powerful images for a baptism.   They are images of Jesus' power and compassion.  But, then our eyes wander to the drawing of the rapidly dropping Simon Peter while the other disciples, still safe in the boat, are watching.

Why not just Jesus walking on the water?  Why include Peter in the painting at all?  Why not, as many more recent artists have done, focus on Jesus' power over the storms and the waves?  That would make this another scene about Jesus' divine power.  But, the painting seems to focus on the image of the sinking Apostle: Peter failing in faith in front of a boatload of gaping disciples watching him go down.  If the paralyzed man with his bed is an example of the victory of faith, what is the intended message of Peter sinking?  The failure of too little faith?  But, then, why would this scene be something the early church wanted shown during a baptism?  Baptism was, as it remains today, an act of faith, not doubt.

But, then I realized this was not a painting about Peter's failure, it is a painting about Peter's prayer.  Think about what is really going on.  The drawing shows that moment when, in terror, Peter cries out, "Lord, save me!" (Κύριε, σῶσόν με!) As a prayer it is remarkably short and concise.  Sinking under water tends to make a person get to the point.

Lord, save me captures a key thought for baptism.  This simple prayer has been a part of Christian worship and devotion since the days of the earliest Christians.  Peter, sinking under the waves and crying out in terror, is one of the main images everyone gathering for every baptism would have seen.

The prayer is not, contrary to the impression we might gain from Americanized Christianity, "Lord, help me as I help myself."  "I'll meet you half way."  "You do your part and I'll do mine."  "Lord, I'll pray as though everything depended on you and then work as though everything depended on me."

It is not doctrinal.  It is not complex.  It is not a carefully rehearsed dialogue spoken in reverent solemnity.  Instead, we hear a desperate shout, abandoning all pretense at pride, dignity, and self-sufficiency.  "Lord, save me!"

Christian baptism, plunging a person under the water, is a restating of that prayer.  The truth is that this prayer, I want Jesus as my savior, is anything but easy.  It is rooted in acknowledging our need to be saved and our complete inability to save ourselves.  Lord, save me! is the cry of everyone who looks around and discovers not only are they sinking into certain doom, but also finds there is nothing to stand on and no chance of floating, no matter how hard they try.

Christianity has always been a religion for the desperate.  It a way of life for those whose first great crisis of faith, as the painting suggests, is submitting to being pushed into their own underwater grave, in order to be pulled out of that grave into their own resurrection. It is the gathering of the poor in spirit, heartbroken and thirsty, who are driven in the madness of spiritual starvation into eating flesh and drinking blood.

The foundation of our response to the crucified God will always be typified in that simple prayer of Peter.  We are those who have cried out to Jesus and we are those who have been saved by Him.

And, as for the faces in the boat, does the drawing really suggest they were glad they stayed safe?  Sure, they didn't almost die.  But, it also meant Jesus did not reach out and save them.  In that scene, the man who almost drowned will also be the only man Jesus holds in His arms.

In a room where men and women came to step out of safety in order to be plunged into the water of baptism, the power of that image is obvious.

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