When an ancient ritual persists into the twentieth century, surviving all the upheavals of modernization, it has surely touched something deep in the human psyche. Rebaking a child was one such rite, once practiced widely throughout Eastern Europe: by Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Chuvash, and others. It is referenced in various works of literature, fairy tales, and is even occasionally heard of in the present day. This folk custom, clearly a holdover from an ancient pagan rite, involved wrapping an infant in rye dough, (leaving a hole for the mouth and nose), tying them onto the bread paddle, and putting them into a warm, but not overly warm, oven. The exact details of the ceremony varied from one locale to another, but it was a ritual performed by women to save a child who was either born prematurely or who was deathly ill. Typically, the mother, the mother-in-law, or the village grandmother-healer (“babushka-znaxar’ka”) were present and would repeat the traditional words over the child.
Why does hearing about this custom give us shivers? It embodies so many powerful symbols in one action. On the one hand, it seems like a terrifying ordeal. A child on the verge of death is encased in dough like a little mummy, tied to a board as if a corpse, and placed into the tomblike oven. And yet, at the same time, the rite is not meant to kill but to heal. The stove is not hot, only gently warm. The folk beliefs about the custom declare that they are returning a child who was “undercooked” back to its mother’s womb to finish the job. Attended by various mother figures, wrapped in dough that is warm and alive with rising yeast, the baby is meant to be revitalized and returned to health.
The rite of baptism has its roots in ancient Jewish purification rituals. Then later when it became a Christian sacrament, baptism acquired the symbolism of rebirth and of adoption as children of God. The gospel of John relates a conversation between Jesus Christ and Nicodemus in which Christ speaks of the necessity of being born again, and Nicodemus cannot understand, asking how can a child be returned to his mother’s womb? Baptism embodies some of the same symbolism of death-to-life as the ritual of rebaking. There is the connection with death and burial: total submersion in water was the original practice; prayers during the rite speak of the death of the “old man” and of being buried with Christ in the waters of the font. But the water of baptism is not meant to drown the baby (or adult); it heals. The water is meant to wash away impurities, to initiate a new life. The newly purified is raised to new life with Christ, welcomed into the very family of God, made “co-heirs with Christ of the heavenly kingdom”. He is named, surrounded by loving godparents, and clothed in a new white garment or christening gown.
There is a critical difference in the two rites of rebirth, and this difference reveals something about the pagan and Christian responses to the problem of existence. The goal of rebaking an infant is to send the child back to its mother (or perhaps to Mother-Earth, symbolized by the oven,) in order to fix them and return them to the same world in a better condition. Baptism, however, essentially involves movement from one world to another. It begins with renunciations of the old life and the devil. Its goal is to take us out of this world and bring us into a new and heavenly kingdom. There is the understanding of the rest of life on this earth as a sojourn, of living as if in exile. Whereas in the pagan ritual of rebaking, the problem is that a child is merely “unripe” for life in this world, the Christian ritual (and its Jewish precursor) focus on the need for cleansing. Baptism points to the view of existence in this world as inherently flawed. Death, disease, war, hatred, sin— they are an inalienable part of life on this planet. In the modern world, we understand with greater clarity how deeply death has been written into the very fabric of the cosmos. From the process of Evolution to the decay of the very atoms that make up all matter, death and loss cannot be separated from life in this world.
The pagan world view does not seek a grand solution to the problem of existence. At most, the pagan hopes to pacify her capricious gods and gain a temporary reprieve from death for herself or her loved ones. But Christianity grapples with the very heart of the problem of existence: how can a loving and omnipotent God create a world that is riddled to its very core with death and suffering? If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, then there must be something more than the reality of this world.
What else then is there? There is a mystery here. If the Christian answer to this problem of existence were really as simplistic as “pie in the sky by and by,” as its doctrine is often caricatured, then it would not be a serious answer. But more often, theologians describe the kingdom of heaven as the soul’s mystical union with God through an overwhelming love for God and for all of creation.
The fact that the initiation rite of baptism is meant to be performed early in life and not only on a deathbed, points to the understanding that heaven does not begin after we die, but right now, while we still live. Heaven meets us in the present moment, not in some future time, as we strive to cultivate the ever more perfect love that will transform our whole existence by allowing us to participate in the very life of the Holy Trinity, who is Love. Atoms decay, and stars fade; the only thing that is truly eternal is Divine love. Eternal life in heaven only makes sense in the context of uniting ourselves to this perfect Love, a love that is truly stronger than death.
“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)