Suppose you ever wondered how someone became a Christian in the early period of the Christian church. In that case, you will find an informative description in “Quodvultdeus of Carthage: The Creedal Homilies: Conversion in Fifth-Century North Africa” (translation and commentary by Thomas Macy Finn; Ancient Christian Writers 60; New York: The Newman Press, 2004).
Quodvultdeus (Q), meaning “what God wills,” was born in Carthage around 390, in the modern city of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia in North Africa. Having entered the church’s service early in his life, Q became a deacon and possibly a bishop of the church at Carthage, besides being actively involved in the church at Naples, in Southern Italy, where he died about 457. Q played the role of the “pastoral leader” of the Carthaginian church.
The book under review presents three creedal homilies that Q delivered “… on Sunday morning a week before Easter…” in the mid-430s. The context of Q’s sermons was an important conversion ritual in Lent’s season leading up to Easter.
Christian conversion was a process that marked the gradual personal transformation of someone seeking to receive Christian baptism. The first step was to become an inquirer and express the intention to become a church member. If accepted, the candidate would become a hearer in a process that could last a lifetime, like in Augustine’s father, Patricius, who never graduated from that stage. Finally, if determined to become a baptized Christian, one would give his or her name to the church’s bishop at the beginning of the Lent season to be prepared for baptism at Easter. At this stage, someone became a seeker. But as the translator of Q’s homilies puts it: “Decisions not lightly made … are not lightly accomplished.” A seeker would receive instruction at a daily mass or service and would be required to observe Lent meticulously. It meant abstention from wine, meat, bath, public entertainment, and marital relations. Seekers were, therefore, put to the test to see if they were worthy of becoming members of the body of Christ.
Learning the Christian faith’s central tenets was also an essential aspect of becoming a baptized Christian. On a Saturday two weeks before Sunday Easter, seekers learned the Christian creed, which symbolized the primary obligations of the seekers’ “pact of fidelity.” In a series of sermons, seekers would hear an explanation of the creed in a line-by-line fashion. The form of the creed in North Africa has been recovered from St. Augustine as follows: “I believe in God, the Father omnipotent, creator of all things, and in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born from the virgin, Mary. He was crucified, died, and was buried under Pontius Pilate. But on the third day, he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father, from which he will come to judge the living and the dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life through the holy catholic church.” A critical theme in Q’s sermons is the belief in a trinitarian God involved in human salvation. As Q put it: “…the Father sent the Son… the Son himself assumed human nature to heal it, and… the Holy Spirit poured out that saving gift for no other reason than that we be relieved of the burden of sins.” The seekers had to memorize the creed and recite it by heart at a vigil on Saturday, a week before Easter Sunday.
Then Easter Sunday arrived. It is theologically fitting that baptism would occur on this day that celebrated Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. In baptism, the seekers would symbolically “die” to their old ways to just then rise on Easter Sunday to their new life in Christ. But baptism was no trivial matter, requiring scrutiny that did not distinguish between rich or poor. Chanting, “Test me, o God, and know my heart” (Psa 139:23), they appeared before the church with their heads bowed, in goatskin clothes, and barefoot. They then renounced Satan, which in Q’s social context, amounted to a rejection of the violence, the illicit pleasures, and the ambition Roman culture offered in its theaters and arenas. Finally, they recited the creed as a symbol of their new pact of fidelity.
One of the exciting aspects of the conversion process discussed thus far is that it started during Lent’s season. One did not decide lightly to become a baptized Christian. Quodvultdeus of Carthage is a reminder that ancient Christians have used the Lent season to make life-changing decisions or renew their commitment to the Christian life. As such, Q’s sermons continue to invite us today to reorient our lives during this meaningful season.