In On the Apostolic Tradition (an ancient manual exploring the daily life of the church), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236) writes at some length about Christian baptism. He begins his account noting the length and seriousness of the preparation necessary for entry into church membership: “Catechumens should hear the word for three years. But if a man is keen and perseveres well in the matter, the length of time should not be considered but his manner alone should be considered” (17.1-2). During this period, the candidates for baptism are expected to be instructed and trained in virtue and godliness through the ministry of Scripture, gathering together with the saints, the life of prayer, and the performance of charity through good works.
At the moment, I’m less concerned here with the theological points raised regarding baptism, prayer, or catechisms in general. However, what I do find particularly fascinating about Hippolytus’ account is the central place afforded to the works of mercy. Of those catechumens to be baptized, Hippolytus writes, “When those who are to receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works; and if those who brought them bear witness that they have acted thus, so they should hear the Gospel” (20.1-2). This passage can function as a helpful commentary on where to place the question of mercy in the context of liturgy and the Christian life. Beneath the surface rests a certain interrogation: What constitutes a righteous life? What kind of habits rightly follow from a faithful willingness to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and King? What practices flow forth from a radical encounter with the living God of whom Scripture testifies and bears witness? For Hippolytus caring for widows and orphans, the homeless and the sick, the aged and the forgotten, even “the very least of these,” makes the candidate suitable for membership into Christ’s body precisely because such an ethic is literally woven into the very fabric of the church’s being. These practices are not anomalies, supplements, or garnishes to the life of faith. They define its tangibility. They are simply what one does if one is to receive the name Christian. One might even go so far as to say that, viewed in this light, Hauerwas might be right: the church is (rather than has) a social ethic.
Describing the movement (or enfolding) of persons into the church, Hippolytus turns his attention onto the baptismal rite. Having renounced evil, received the gifts of baptism by water and the Eucharist itself, the catechumens are sent forth from the font with the following charge: “And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety” (21.38). Herein, Hippolytus identifies the work of the faithful with the practice of mercy. These acts in preparation for baptism are now to be carried forward as manifestations of the newness of life made possible through the power of the Spirit and to the eternal glory of the Father. Likewise, the liturgical context of “good works” is made more explicit. These works are not simply random acts of kindness nor instants of a disinterested material philanthropy, but a performative extension of grace – received from God and offered back to God through our mutual participation in divine charity. By dying with Christ in the water and being raised to newness of life through the vivifying indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the catechumens able to offer their very bodies to God as “living sacrifices” and “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 12.1, 6.13). As the work of the people (i.e. liturgy), such bodily practices of grace are inseparable from the transformed life of worshipful devotion to the Triune God. An ethic of faith is nothing short of an ethic of action; both of these belong to the order of worship.
As a final comment, it is worth noting that the agency of grace alone grounds our worth and invokes from us a responsive thankfulness. We do not declare ourselves worthy of such things; we are always made worthy through the bountiful gifts of God. Hippolytus writes, “Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen” (21.21).