Easter Before the Bunny

Before the Easter Bunny nibbled its way onto sacred turf, Easter was a very serious business. In early Christian communities -- in fourth century Milan, for instance -- it was the day when, normally, all new Christians were baptized, and it was the deepest spiritual experience most of them would ever have. But the very things that impressed those "born again" in "saving waters" would probably upset modern people -- things like their being stripped naked in church and then anointed with oil all over their body, or going naked into a pool where their heads would be held under water three times for "total immersion."

I became interested in baptismal rites because of a 1940s archeological find in Milan. During World War II, the city dug into the piazza in front of its famous cathedral and unearthed the foundations and pool of an eight-sided baptistery from the fourth century. It had been covered up for centuries to make way for the huge Gothic cathedral that now towers above it. I have gone down to visit that site repeatedly, since it is the historic place where Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, baptized an African visitor to the city, who would become Saint Augustine.

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