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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 135–47 

The Baptism Ritual in a Postmodern World

Michele Hershberger

“I don’t know what to do.” The youth sponsor’s voice broke over the phone as she tried to contain her frustration. “My kids came back from youth convention so pumped for Jesus, only to find that they had to wait over a year for baptism. The church did nothing to celebrate their decision. All they did was scramble for four months trying to get a catechism class together. By that time, half of my new Christians were wondering if they did the right thing.”

Postmodern youth need both the immediacy of the New Testament baptism and the radical, countercultural catechism of the second century.

Unfortunately, this is not the only youth worker who has called about this issue. Many pastors and sponsors do not know what to do with youth who want to get baptized right away. Traditional Anabaptist congregations postpone baptism until the completion of catechism, which may take up to six months. But in the catechism process, claim the youth workers, the newfound passion of becoming a Christian gets lost in the shuffle of doctrines and waiting for the right time to baptize.

Is there a better time to baptize? This is the underlying question these sponsors are asking. Given that our ecclesiastical rituals either support or sabotage our explicit theology, then what does the act of baptism, four to six months after conversion, implicitly say to our spoken theology? How do our rituals shape our definition of baptism? What is the real {136} message we are giving to our youth by the way we practice baptism?

Several factors will be considered in this essay: What did baptism mean and look like in the New Testament? How did Christians understand and practice baptism in the second century Church? How was baptism experienced during the Radical Reformation? Finally, what are the specific needs of postmodern youth today?


Baptism was familiar as an entrance ritual to Gentiles of Jesus’ day and possibly also to Jews. The mystery religions used baptism in this way, and some scholars believe that Gentile proselytes to Judaism were baptized into the faith as well. 1 Jews of first century Palestine, on the other hand, would not have considered baptism an appropriate ritual for themselves, for they had already “crossed through” the waters of the Red Sea via their ethnic heritage and had no need to cross over again. 2 Thus, John’s call for fellow Jews to be baptized was provocative and unexpected. That so many responded to this call signaled a great desire in many for a new way of life.

The synoptic Gospels differentiate between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of Jesus. John’s is emphasized as a baptism of repentance and preparation for the more complete baptism done by the apostles. Whereas John baptized with water, Jesus would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11).

Jesus himself did not baptize with water (John 4:2). Rather his baptism denoted an inner experience, a coming of the Holy Spirit and fire, an experience that happened prior to the water ritual. The book of Acts contains the most clearly defined Christian baptisms. The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), the jailer from Philippi (Acts 16:16-34), and the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48) are examples of persons who expressed and/or acted upon belief in Jesus and then experienced baptism.

The examples in Acts which indicate a specific time frame show baptism following on the heels of conversion. Luke especially takes pains to show his readers that the Philippian jailer’s baptism happened the same night as his step of faith. Acts 16:33 begins and ends with a specific time qualifier. “At the same hour of the night” that the earthquake shook his prisoners free, the jailer brought Paul and Silas to his house, listened to the “word of the Lord,” washed their wounds, and he and his entire household “were baptized without delay” (Acts 16:33 NRSV, emphasis mine).

The Ethiopian eunuch is another example. What is so captivating about this baptism is the approach taken by the Ethiopian. “Look, here {137} is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36 NRSV, passim). He does not ask, “Am I ready?” but “Can you think of any reason why I’m not ready?” The burden of proof in this story does not rely on readiness but with delay. The way to baptism, as seen from this story, is open unless proven closed.

Baptism without delay did not cancel the need for teaching and instruction in Christian living, however. Peter proclaimed, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Three thousand were baptized that day. Those baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Although not every baptism story has the teaching element, this pivotal story shows evidence of the early church’s understanding of the need for instruction in the “way of the Lord.”

The weight of the Acts narratives speaks in favor of a water ritual of baptism following quickly after conversion and demonstration of faith. Outside the book of Acts, the evidence is sketchier. How and when did Paul baptize new converts? Many scholars think that segments of the epistles, as well as the Sermon on the Mount, are pieces of catechism material. 3 Did the Gentiles responding to Paul’s message go through a different process than their fellow Jewish Christians? Was it possible, even desirable, to baptize the first converts immediately since, as Jews or God-fearers, they understood the Hebrew scriptures and attending folkways already, and therefore did not need extensive catechism? 4

Even if Paul gave catechism instruction to the Gentile converts, it is unlikely that he spent a long time at it, as attested in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17. While appealing to the Corinthian church concerning divisions in the church, Paul claimed to have baptized only a few of the members there. More importantly, Paul admitted that he could not remember how many other persons he baptized. If Paul did catechism with these persons before baptism, it must not have been extensive, or he would have remembered the experience. Even if others oversaw the catechism, and Paul came only to baptize, it is clear that he did not have any interest in regulating any formal catechism/baptism process. 5 Without conclusive evidence in the epistles, the pattern in Acts—conversion and baptism within a short period of time—remains the only clear norm.


This pattern was reversed by the second century. By this time the church had established a tradition of extensive catechism that took up to {138} three years before the catechumen was baptized. 6 The catechism included many exorcisms from demons, prayer, a mentorship with an older Christian, instructions in the biblical narrative, and especially instruction in the ethical implications of that narrative. 7 The catechumens also participated in the first part of the weekly worship. The second part, which included the eucharist, was closed to all but those baptized. After the intensive time of training and “weeding out,” 8 the catechumens, often in the weeks prior to Easter, were scrutinized for their suitability for membership in the church. Daily exorcisms, reading of the gospel, and fasting were also part of the final weeks. They held an all-night Easter Eve vigil, and then at cockcrow, they removed their clothes and were immersed into a tub of water. Dying to themselves and being raised to new life, the catechumens emerged as new persons. Then a joyous celebration ensued, and the catechumens received their first eucharist.

What accounts for the apparent change in the pattern from the first years of the church to the second century? The first converts, Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, were different than Gentile pagans who made up the primary converts of the second century. The first converts knew the Hebrew Scriptures and the way of life they represented. Did this fact alone warrant a change in the pattern? The second century church also contended with spies infiltrating the worship meetings in order to incriminate Christians. Did the long catechism before baptism weed out impostors as much or more than insincere converts?

Another factor was the church’s understanding of the reality of demonic power. Appreciating the powers of the “rulers of the air,” the second century church used catechism as a time of exorcising a variety of paganisms. 9 The lives and outlooks of the pagan converts represented a Roman cultural worldview that the church considered bondage. The converts came from a world that worshiped many gods, including the subtle and dangerous god of greed. 10 Without this work of detoxification, the new converts could not enter into communion with the saints. Baptism, then, was regarded as a person’s final exorcism in many parts of the early Christian church. 11 “By reason of his baptism,” Irenaeus says, “Christians are delivered from the power of demons and have been identified with Christ. . . . They should have every confidence that they can prevail against the demons.” 12

For the time and situation of the second-century church, the catechism seemed effective for the nurturing of faith. Many of those martyred in Rome were unbaptized catechumens. They had obviously received enough of the Holy Spirit to endure the tortures of the {139} Coliseum. Perpetua, a young catechumen, gave great testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit via visions and her own fortitude in death. 13 Like the church in Acts, this community was growing and thriving in spite of persecution. It thrived with a pattern of conversion, catechism, and then baptism, a distinctly different pattern than found in the New Testament.


By the sixteenth century, much had happened to the practice of Christian baptism. In the first three hundred years of the church, adults were baptized after expressing a voluntary faith decision. Even though catechism existed in a more formal way in the second century than in the early church, both practiced believers baptism, with few exceptions. 14 But gradually the Catholic Church practiced infant baptism alongside adult baptism and then as the primary type.

But many thinkers of the Reformation began to recapture a theology of salvation by grace through faith. They also questioned sacramentalism, the belief that this grace was conveyed through the sacraments. The question then surfaced, “If the water of baptism is just water, and if what really counts is spiritual rebirth and regeneration, then of what value is infant baptism?” The Anabaptists were foremost among these thinkers, going so far as to denounce infant baptism and rebaptize themselves as adult believers. They also refused to have their infants baptized.

This refusal was an enormous threat to the state, which counted each baptized body as a taxpayer. The Anabaptists were severely persecuted for practicing adult baptism, but this did not deter them. The baptism was the outer sign of a profound inner baptism of the Spirit. In baptism the believer made a pledge with God, before the believing body, to follow the way of Jesus and to live in relationship with the community. This pledge was completely voluntary, creating a fully disciplined, free church.

The sacramental question still remained, however. If the water is just water, and what really counts is a spiritual rebirth and regeneration, what then of the water ritual itself? Some Anabaptists sided with the Spiritualists, who repudiated both infant and adult baptism. 15 Others held to the outer adult baptism, strictly because the Scriptures commanded it. 16

Pilgrim Marpeck brought the two baptisms together. With other Anabaptists, Marpeck held that regeneration began prior to water baptism and the latter was an outer sign of a new birth already begun within. 17 The sign was important, though, for it participated in the very {140} reality of regeneration and in doing so, it could be called part of that reality. Although forgiveness preceded baptism in that the Holy Spirit was already at work in the believer, forgiveness was also bestowed in water baptism.

Marpeck avoided the danger of sacramentalism, claiming that the power at work in baptism was not the power of the water, but the power of the believer’s confession of faith. Without faith, the water ritual was meaningless. But when faith was present, the outer action complemented and fulfilled the inner operation of the Spirit. With this unity of inner and outer baptism, Marpeck rejected the dualism of spirit and flesh of Schwenckfeld and the Spiritualists and also of the pedobaptists (baptizers of infants) who placed the outer baptism before the inner baptism. In uniting the two baptisms, he upheld a creation theology and the importance of a visible community. 18 He gave the Anabaptists a more substantial reason for water baptism than Menno Simons’ wooden literalism. He understood the need for converts to give testimony and for the congregation to affirm it with their own testimony.

The battle for the water ritual was a crucial one because adult baptism, more than anything else, set the Anabaptists apart as a visible and separate church. Other Reformation thinkers held the same views on infant baptism and sacramentalism, but because they did not act on them, none of them established separate communities. The Anabaptists’ commitment to visibility led to much suffering, and the suffering in turn became a baptism of blood that refined the regeneration and increased the community’s visibility. The temptation was always toward Nicodemism, rejecting the outer signs so as to become indistinguishable from the world in order to avoid the suffering. The outer testimony of water baptism, because of what it did to the new believer and for its witness to the world, was essential to the church being church. 19

But did the early Anabaptists have catechism before baptism and, if so, to what extent? The evidence speaks to a variety of experiences. Balthasar Hubmaier wrote an extensive catechism in 1526 with the purpose of educating new believers. 20 He anticipated the reality of “second generation” believers, as the children of the first Anabaptists would be raised in the church, and their need to learn the basics of faith. That at least part of this catechism was used before baptism is apparent, but how long the process or how widespread its use is not clear.

On the other hand, there are records of immediate baptisms. Hans Hut baptized many converts after only a very basic instruction because the second coming of Christ was fast approaching. 21 Anstad Kemmerer of Halle was one such convert who was baptized by Hut’s followers the {141} same day they approached him with the gospel. Catechism, if done, did not imply complete theological agreement between convert and baptizer. C. Arnold Snyder notes, “Grof was baptized by Hubmaier, but was a pacifist; Hut was baptized by Denck, but did not become a ‘Denckian’: Rinck was with Muntzer and was baptized by Denck, but his Anabaptism looks more Swiss than south German. . . .” 22 Even if the catechism lasted more than a few days, one “rule” of the early Anabaptists was to refrain from asking or learning the name of the baptizer so that one could not disclose his name under torture. 23

But on an informal level, virtually all Anabaptist evangelists did some Bible teaching, and likely there was a corpus of Scriptures taught that supported central Anabaptist teachings. In numerous court-recorded testimonies, literate and illiterate Anabaptists alike cited the same passages to defend believers baptism, the ban, and other key themes. 24 Court officials were astounded by the “biblical knowledge” of the simple Anabaptists. Most of this instruction was done orally and informally, given the constant threat of persecution and their limited ability to use official channels of communication like pulpits and printing presses. But some instruction had to be done or the rebaptism called for would not have made any sense.


In all three time periods considered above, what did the timing of the baptism imply about the meaning of baptism itself? At least some church leaders from each era spoke of baptism in similar ways, but different parts of baptism’s rich meaning were accentuated by the different practices. The New Testament pattern stressed baptism as part of the beginning of the regeneration process, and in doing so, stressed baptism as a formative, identity-shaping event. It was comparable to the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, their formative salvation event. Baptism after catechism also signified an entrance, but this time into a more developed Christian faith. It stressed sanctification, the final step, more comparable to crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land after the pedagogy of the wilderness.

Each of the patterns had potential pitfalls. Some New Testament converts likely did not have adequate understanding of the implications of their faith. One example is Simon who, after being baptized, offered money to buy the “magical” power of the Spirit (Acts 8:4-25). The second century pattern could imply that one must be completely regenerated and understand everything before entering the Kingdom. Was this an early, almost imperceptible first step toward perfectionistic Pelagianism? {142}

Both patterns escaped their shadow sides by an emphasis on divine intervention and Spirit-filled action, as is also true of the early Anabaptists. What preceded the water ritual in all cases was an inner “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and even in the long catechism process of the second century, this emphasis was not lost because of the exorcisms and the laying on of hands.

Also, in all three eras, the majority of the new believers were first generation. They were differentiating themselves from dominant religious systems: Judaism, paganism, or a state church. The change that baptism represented, then, was more clear and sometimes more dramatic. The move from Judaism and the state church had less of a worldview shift than did the conversion from paganism, hence the church’s emphasis on catechism preceding baptism in the latter context. Persons in each of these settings also faced persecution, which worked to clarify the gravity of the faith decision.


Enter the Anabaptist youth of 2002. While there are some first generation Christians converted from today’s neopaganism, most youth in an Anabaptist setting have grown up in the church and are not differentiating themselves from a dominant religious system. And unlike the three eras studied above, they do not face persecution on an organized scale.

To be consistent with the church practices reviewed in the preceding historical study, priority should be given to discerning the divine inner baptism of the Holy Spirit in each youth. Also based on those practices, it would seem that baptism as a symbol of faith commitment should, for most, be administered quickly; a catechism preceding baptism would be less appropriate than one which followed. Finally, it would seem important that church ritual emphasize the gravity and significance as well as the joy of the faith decision.

However, in practice, the typical adolescent coming to faith in an Anabaptist congregation usually faces one or more of the following:

  1. Little or no official ritual that signals the initial faith decision. Such symbols exist: going forward during revival meetings, signing a decision card, raising one’s hand, etc. In one sense these symbols perform the same function as the water baptism of the New Testament. 25 They remain, however, unofficial in many congregations.
  2. A waiting period for baptism between three and twelve months. {143}
  3. A catechism administered prior to baptism, particularly one that stresses linear thinking and doctrines rather than an emphasis on right living and exorcisms of demonic powers.
  4. Little or no celebration of both the joy as well as the gravity of a person coming to the new life of faith.

As well as violating the lessons of church history, these realities fail to meet the needs of postmodern youth. Postmoderns by definition do not trust cognitive learning and linear thinking. Apologetics mean little to one who believes there is no truth with a capital T. Postmoderns prefer Jesus’ stories to Paul’s theologizing. They look askance at a God who can be explained. They want a God of mystery. 26 Since modernity’s solid scientific and logical foundations have now fallen for them, their way of finding reality must come from something else.

That something else is experience. Postmodern youth long to experience God. This means that cognitive, doctrinal understanding of faith is not very important and experiential life application is key. How does Jesus make a difference in my life and then, through the community, make a difference to the world? Postmoderns are more interested in the Holy Spirit and see faith as a journey and process rather than believing a set of doctrinal propositions.

Rituals are also important because they are participatory. Youth know, on one level, that the water used in baptism is just that—water. But unlike their modern counterparts, Postmoderns sense that, in the act of baptism, something does happen that is mysterious and scientifically unexplainable. 27 And without needing to dissect or analyze this mystery, they long to experience it. 28

Finally, postmodern youth want both their spiritual experience and their community to have integrity. They are attracted to communities that live out what they say they believe. Adult Christians must be real. It is this integrity, and not any conferred office, that gives others authority in the community. 29 Postmoderns will not believe in regeneration until they see it. They are also careful then to watch the reaction of the congregation when a new convert is announced. And when the congregation responds in a mediocre way—planning little or no celebration, struggling to get a catechism class around, or even neglecting to respond at all—then the youth assume that baptism is not important.


A tension exists between the need to take eternal truths and make them relevant in a cultural context and the realization that {144} contextualization itself reshapes the eternal truth. When should Anabaptist congregations baptize their new converts? Is the timing of baptism a peripheral issue, as long as the inner baptism of faith precedes the outer baptism of water? Are people baptized into turning their life around, or do they turn their life around in order to be baptized? Let me present the following four suggestions.

Do Something

When youth express the desire to become Christians, the congregation should respond quickly, with excitement and celebration. This is the integrity issue. If this does not happen, youth interpret the absence to mean that faith decisions are not important and baptism is only a perfunctory obligation. Is there anything to celebrate in the rebirth into the kingdom? Do the other believers care enough about me or about salvation and regeneration to respond in a committed way to my decision? Those are the questions the youth will ask if they do not see enthusiasm from the congregation over their faith decision.

Practice a Beginning-of-Faith Ritual

Postmodern youth need ritual, a symbol that affirms the mystery of the rebirth, a chance to participate physically. Whether this ritual is baptism, which would be the most biblical ritual to use, or another symbol that could be legitimated by the congregation, is a secondary question. Faith implies an active choice, and our postmodern youth need to do something, publicly, that validates their faith. And they need to do it in the beginning as well as at the end of the catechism process. Marpeck shows the way here, with his understanding of the need for validation, the need for the bodily reality to respond to the inner reality.

Becoming a Christian is not just a mental exercise, which some of our catechism and baptismal practices imply. Something supernatural does happen, and Postmoderns need a beginning symbol that both represents that “something” and, as the ritual is played out, also becomes a part of that “something.”

Recharge Catechism

Just like one’s faith decision cannot be purely a mental experience, neither can it be purely an emotional ritualized experience. Both experiences lack integrity for the Postmodern. Catechism is very important, whether it is done before or after baptism, or some of both. And while the learning process of a Christian is never fully complete, there should be a specialized set of learnings and experiences that the new convert {145} accomplishes. Here the second-century catechism practices can be instructive. Instead of focusing on linear concepts, catechism should emphasize the biblical story, identity issues, and right living.

What are the habits that make Christians different, yet are habits so ingrained that they seem natural? What spiritual disciplines does one practice that opens one up to spiritual transformation? Perhaps, as in the second century, we need to do exorcisms. We give great intellectual arguments about why Anabaptists should not participate in the powers of consumerism and nationalism, but do we acknowledge the spiritual warfare that is part of these “-isms?”

Postmodern youth are savvy to these spiritual dimensions and not only want to know why we should not be bound to them, but want also to experience genuine freedom from them. Our catechism must be radical and full of integrity to meet the demands of a post-Christian world. Postmoderns want as much, for they can find easy answers and entertainment anywhere. They want their experience to be real, and they know that authentic Christianity demands total commitment. In the aftermath of September 11, it is even more imperative than before that we proclaim “Jesus is Lord” and militarism is not, and that proclamation may incite persecution. We need a catechism that will prepare younger believers for the rigors of this new world.

Recharge the Baptismal Ritual

Anabaptist congregations need to reclaim a full-bodied water ritual. Baptism is one of the few rituals we have, for good reason, and for our spiritual ancestors, water baptism carried great theological import. Congregations should consider immersion instead of sprinkling, and should make the ritual more than just a five-minute addendum to the sermon. Plan an all-night prayer vigil, where key leaders lay hands on the catechumens. Ask the catechumen to give testimony to the congregation, which can respond in turn. And while the gravity of the faith decision should be spelled out in concrete terms in the days before the baptism, the event itself should be joyous. The Spirit has set another person free! This does not mean that the one baptized needs to have experienced full regeneration; it does mean that the new convert has entered into the mystery of a Spirit-filled life, a journey which will move toward full regeneration with the help of the Spirit.

In one sense, postmodern youth need both the immediacy of the New Testament baptism and the radical, countercultural catechism of the second century. And what is appropriate timing for one may not be for another. For some youth, especially those growing up in the church, {146} the most helpful thing may be to baptize shortly after evidence of a faith decision and the working of the Spirit. For others who may not know the biblical narrative or who have limited understanding of the implications of following Jesus, more catechism is needed before the water ritual. All new converts need specialized instruction, and all postmodern youth need experience and ritual.

Deeper than the question of when we baptize is how we baptize. Does the congregation fully appreciate the tremendous event of the new birth? Does the catechism focus on Spirit transformation, story, and identity as well as doctrine? It is crucial that our congregations recapture the spiritual and transformational aspects of catechism and baptism. Both the rigors of radical, long-term catechism and a beginning acknowledgment of the mystery of new birth must be present in the process.


  1. So William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976), 16-17. A brief overview of what is known concerning Jewish proselyte baptism is given by David S. Dockery, “Baptism,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 55-56.
  2. Ibid., 24. Drawing upon historical sources, Marlin Jeschke makes the same point eloquently in Believers Baptism for Children of the Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1983), 20-23.
  3. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997), 23.
  4. Alan Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove, 1995), 21.
  5. Hays, 24.
  6. Kreider, 21-27; see also Tony Jones, Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 171-72, for a connection of these rituals to Postmoderns.
  7. Everett Ferguson, “Iranaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching and Early Catechetical Tradition,” Studia Patristica 18 (1989): 119-40.
  8. Robert Webber, “Ethics and Evangelism: Learning from the Third-Century Church,” Christian Century, 24 September 1986, 806.
  9. Willard Swartley, “Biblical Faith Confronting Opposing Spiritual Realities,” Direction 29 (fall 2000): 107.
  10. Kreider, 21. {147}
  11. Everett Ferguson, Demonology of the Early Christian World (New York and Toronto, ON: Edwin Mellen, 1984), 129.
  12. Ibid., 125.
  13. Jean Laporte, The Role of Women in Early Christianity (New York and Toronto, ON: Edwin Mellen, 1982), 13-21.
  14. Kreider, 21.
  15. Rollen Stely Armour, Anabaptist Baptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1966), 392-93.
  16. C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 1995), 300.
  17. Ibid., 121.
  18. Ibid., 313.
  19. Ibid., 311-14
  20. Armour, 54-55; see also Snyder, 83-84.
  21. Snyder, 105-6.
  22. Ibid., 125.
  23. John Oyer, “Anabaptist Women Leaders in Augsburg, August 1527 to April 1528,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers, ed. C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 125.
  24. Snyder, 107.
  25. Jeschke, 43.
  26. Jones, 20-24.
  27. An interesting example of this comes from Dorothy Nickel Friesen, “From the River Jordan . . . to Bluffton, Ohio,” The Mennonite, 13 October 1998, 8, where she tells of a youth who wanted to use water from the Jordan River for her baptism.
  28. Jones, 63.
  29. Ibid., 132.
Michele Hershberger is the Director of Youth Ministry at Hesston College, Hesston, Kansas, where she teaches Bible as well as youth ministry courses. A former youth pastor and conference youth minister, she is currently authoring a new introduction to faith from an Anabaptist perspective.

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