Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thoughts on Baptism

One way to cause clergy and laity alike to near-riot is to post something on one's Facebook page regarding baptism during Lent.  I think perhaps only the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has a deeper divide.  One faction holds that Lent is a penitential season; therefore, baptisms, except in situations of pastoral emergency, should be delayed until the season of Easter.  The opposing side views baptisms on Sunday in Lent as perfectly appropriate in the normal course of worship, because Sundays are ALWAYS feasts of the Resurrection.  As always in the Anglican tradition, there are valid points across the spectrum.

My comment, however, had more to do with the way baptism is often seen in the church.  Too many times, it is a social event, a rite of passage where family and friends gather to smile and take pictures as a baby is baptized in great-grandmother's christening gown.  I heard one priest comment, "Baptism is my favorite thing to do.  I love to baptize." I've been in parishes where the baptism seemed more like a child's birthday party than a deep sacrament that intertwined love and courage, danger and faith.

Because baptism is all of that.  The consequence of baptism for Jesus in Sunday's Gospel reading was to be driven out into the desert.  Not to have unicorns dance around, but to delve deeply into the desert places of his own soul, to plunge into his own ego and see the places where temptation could take root.  What if that is a real consequence of baptism for us, as well?  Perhaps not that day, but an inevitable consequence of the sacrament - that we will be called into our desert places and changed?

In the prayers of baptism, we recall the Exodus story, perhaps the most foundational story of the human experience with God.  The Hebrews were enslaved, and their freedom came at great cost and human death.  Their freedom also came with a covenant that God would love them and they would keep God's commandments.  When we are baptized, we bind ourselves to that covenant, that we will keep God's commandments to love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves.

Sounds pretty, doesn't it?  Bring on the cake and unicorns.

Baptism, however, brings consequences.  We are washed in water and the blood of the Lamb to a new life.  Baptism means we will believe in a faith community and belong to a faith community and pray with that faith community (in short, get to church more than once or twice a year).  Baptism means we will speak truth to power, even when doing so is dangerous.  Baptism means we will see Christ in all people, even those who anger, abuse, and demean us.  Baptism calls us to a radical shift in life.  It drives us out into the desert to drop into the deep recesses of our souls, to see the dark places where temptation takes root and flourishes into sin.  Baptism overwhelms us with an awareness that we will not keep God's commandments, and when we do, we will repent and seek forgiveness from God and from those we've wounded with our sinful action or inaction.

Baptism brings consequences.  Our story is filled with saints who were baptized and lived into the consequences.  Ignatius of Antioch was baptized, and martyred for his faith.  Oscar Romero was baptized...and murdered for the truth he spoke to power.  Jonathan Daniels was baptized...and martyred for seeking and serving Christ in all people, regardless of race.  I wonder if their parents, as they watched these children baptized, thought of the consequences.  Did the priests who poured the water on Oscar and Jonathan know they were calling them to a life of such profound love that it would end with gunshots?

I wonder when we celebrate baptism if those of us who pour the Holy Water over tiny heads think we may be baptizing a child of God into a life of Christlike courage...even unto death.  I think that.  I hope all clergy think that.  Because we might be.

I wonder, when we celebrate baptism, if we remember that the commitment to live a life of Christ means we are willing to walk the road of Crucifixion to get to Resurrection.  And we will walk that road.  We will have our selves and souls crucified as we live our lives.  Nails will pierce our egos.  Swords with slit our hopes and dreams.  And we will crawl into the tomb to die, to feel our souls waste away, until...

Until the waters of baptism sweep over us, drowning us with breath and life.  And the tomb opens to new life.

I stand in awe and fear of baptism.  I pray the words of the Thanksgiving over the Water with trepidation and hope and faith.  I pour the Holy Water of God over the person with an awareness that I should probably take off my shoes at the powerful presence of this moment.  I wonder how God will use this life to be a witness to love, and I pray that this child will have a peaceful, easy road in this witness, even though the evidence is to the contrary.

Whether we baptize in Lent or only on particular Sundays, whether we baptize infants or children or youth or adult, however we baptize, I pray that we stand in holy humility and awe of the sacrament that has and will continue to drive us out of the comfort of our lives into the obedience of a life lived in Christ's love.

  

15 comments:

  1. I had chills reading this. Thank you for such a thoughtful post!

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  2. Both my sons have been baptized, both in antique gowns, both in the midst of celebration.
    Yes, I know what it means - I'm a pastor as well as a mother - and I hope for that courage for them. I hope for the love that will hold them so close that they are not afraid to love, themselves, no matter what.
    But my favorite part of the liturgy - the most meaningful, moving part - is when the entire congregation stands and recognizes its own role in this sprinkling of water, in this death and resurrection. Because if we are sent into the desert, we are not sent alone. We are baptized into one Body of Christ. We are baptized into the cloud of witnesses, the community of saints, who will embody and teach the courage and love of God.
    I love doing baptisms just as I love the miracle of birth: it is the ultimate act of love, of hope, of courage in a broken world.

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  3. (plus I love holding babies. it's incidental, but lovely.)

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  4. Very insightful. With the deeper meanings of baptism, which I have never considered--firmly in the unicorn and cake club, do we have any business doing infant baptisms? How can ethically commit our children to such obligations without their free will?

    Myself I was baptized something as a conscientious objector into the American Lutheran Church. I was forced to go to catechism when I reached puberty with the vague hopes that it would instill moral bearing in me and spare my parents any sexual embarrassments that their teen age children can create. The Lutheran church was chosen due to geography. It was 647 feet away from my parents house. Had that been an a Episcopal Church, I am sure I would now be a lapsed Episcopal sinner instead of a lapsed Lutheran sinner.

    Anyhow the fact came out that I was not baptized. Can't go to first communion without being baptized. So I was baptized privately in the pastor's office. I wanted nothing to do with that, or catechism, or first communion. I was pretty sure that I was going to hell regardless of these ceremonies. I don't remember if there were any questions but if they were I would have answered affirmatively just to get through the ordeal. It was sort of like being drafted. You make all these promises because you will go to jail otherwise. Well religion has the ultimate ace in the hole with hell.

    I am not saying any of this to create dissension, and I have no argument with religion. I would say however that if baptism has the obligations that you state, then I don't feel that an infant baptism is valid. Nor is the forced attendance to catechism and first communion. I pretty much feel that I have a one way ticket to hell from the American Lutheran Church. It is actually quite liberating.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like your experience was assaultive. You bring up good questions that I wish we as a faith community wrestled with more. Peace on your journey.

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    2. I appreciate the pickle that religion faces. You have to get them while their young or you may not get them at all. But, how many 13 year old children possess the courage to tell their parents or pastor that they do not agree with the regimen that they have been handed? Maybe things are different today, but when I was inducted into the American Lutheran Church in 1963, any notion of doing this by my own free will was laughable. I did manage to leave the church under my own free will however, and there in lies the rub for a faith. How do you procure the congregants of the future without scaring the hell out of them and then creating a resentment?

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    3. I view baptism of infants more as a commitment by the parents (and the congregation) to raise the child as a part of the Body of Christ. We take stands on how we raise our children all the time. I have chosen a family where questioning is accepted. My son, who just went through the Rite 13 ceremony, is agnostic (although he often says he's an athiest). He is fully accepted by the Priest and others, who patiently answers questions - and my son has a lot of them. Other adults in the parish are mentors, friends, and love him. I think the baptism sybolizes that commitment, by parents, by parish, by god parents, by friends to become "the village." It is less a commitment of the child, than those around them.

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  5. I was baptized at age 8 in a West Texas stock tank by a Baptist preacher. There was a mix of Baptists and Methodists family members and friends attending. I remember the decision was mine. I approached the preacher and we talked about it for weeks before he finally agreed. What I recall of the act itself is that it was cold and the tank bottom (which I could barely touch) was slimy.

    My son was baptized in the Episcopal church not long after he was born. He had one audible response. After the deed was done, as the priest raised him to greet the congregation, my son passed gas into the priest's wireless mic. Even in TN, that response is questionable.

    Both baptisms are memorable.

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  6. Before Lent we had a two-year old Baptized into our community. I was amazed at this boy's attentiveness and joy, and was absolutely astonished at seeing how sure he was of the event. He now takes communion like a pro. This is my first Lent in the church, and really ever. During Lent I need to rebuild and reconstruct. I don't want to have a half-built house when I welcome new members into the community. I would much rather enjoy the Feast and be out of my tomb for Easter.

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  7. This is brilliant. Thank you so much!

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  8. Beautifully and eloquently written. Thank you.

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  9. Thank you for this post--I've actually been baptized twice, so my relation to the sacrament is always covered in a lot of thought and uncertainty. It's an incredible opening to the journey God wants to walk with us, so I get the infant baptism, but I most definitely see the other side, as well.

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  10. In the Baptist church I attended as a college student, the pastor always accompanied the immersion of the person with "buried with Christ in his death..." and the lifting up out of the water with "raised to new life," thus visibly linking baptism to death and resurrection--dying to an old life and being raised to a new. I like the imagery.

    I do think that infant baptism is fine--we often commit our children to things that affect them for the rest of their lives and we do it as conscientious parents. I think it is not a bad thing to set a path in front of a child and then allow them to decide whether or not to continue on that path or forge their own. That is why I think Confirmation is so important--it is the time in which a person is offered the opportunity to confirm or refute the path laid before them at baptism.

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  11. Brilliant post! Thank you for your insightful and challenging comments.

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  12. I really liked this post, as it brings up issues that are not only about being baptized, but also about being a Christ follower. Thank you for your comments.

    I've been baptized twice. The first was as an infant; I know about it because I was told about it. Actually, what I was told is that I pulled the minister's tie, not anything about what it meant.

    The second baptism was at age 60 because I had read the Bible and I didn't see any infant baptisms. Jesus himself was baptized. I wanted to be baptized as an adult, with full understanding of what the action meant, as part of my relationship with Jesus and my commitment to follow him.

    I tried to be baptized again in my Episcopal church and got a theological lecture in response to my request. So I went down the road to the Pentecostals and they were thrilled to oblige.

    I have no argument with the Episcopal church's position, although I disagree with it. It might have been nice to be asked for my experience/reasoning. (PS I have been Episcopalian for 30 years)

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