The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Baptism-Holy SpiritBaptism-confirmation, or Christian Initiation, is fundamental to our understanding of being in relationship with God in Christ. In baptism, we are said to die with Christ in order to rise with him from the immersing waters and to live in him as a new creation. We are transformed by water and the Spirit to become members of the Body of Christ, one in the Spirit with all other Christians and in a new relationship with the world: We are in it, but we are no longer of it. We have repudiated the lies and distortions of a world out of touch with God – “Satan and all his works” – in order to embrace a vision of a holy realm on earth as it is in heaven.

Historically, baptism-confirmation was a unified rite, the means by which the Christian community incorporated new members – adults and, perhaps incidentally, their children. It was an annual event, celebrated on the eve of Easter Sunday. (Note: Liturgically and in keeping with Jewish tradition, the church has historically regarded the eve of the day, sundown, as the beginning of the next day. Hence Jewish Sabbath observance begins Friday night; and hence, the Christian custom of celebrating Christmas with a high service on Christmas Eve.) In the ancient church, bishops (literally, “overseers”) presided at the Easter Vigil, assisted primarily by deacons, men and women who actually performed the ritual of immersing new members in the baptismal pool.

The ritual of baptism symbolizes our turning away from one way of life toward another. We renounce worldly ways of understanding and take on a new vision not only of our own humanity but of all others. We turn toward radical love as manifested by Jesus, and we become one with him by letting ourselves participate symbolically in his death through the water rite. Rising from the waters of baptism is a powerful symbol of our participation in the resurrection of Jesus.

The baptismal ritual concludes with our being anointed as Christ’s own forever: We are ordained by the bishop to share in the priesthood of all believers in Christ Jesus. The ritual of baptism/confirmation is meant to convey these powerful meanings to our souls for life and for all time. We can not be “unbaptized.” As the bishop says in confirmation, “You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism-confirmation is not the same as “joining a church.” The sacrament fundamentally changes my being to its very core. I was one thing before I was baptized and confirmed but something else thereafter. In the ancient church, catechumens had three years to think it over before, as it were, “taking the plunge.” Baptism was understood as a moral commitment for life.

We see in baptism-confirmation the impact of meaningful religious ritual on human being. It transforms us in that it alters our consciousness. When we choose Christian baptism, we’re choosing to let ourselves be changed by the love of God in Christ Jesus, to let ourselves become something other than we would have become otherwise, as members of the Body of Christ. We are choosing to follow Christ as our tradition teaches, to take up our cross and follow Jesus in the way that leads to our dying to self but living to God. The way of the cross is transformational in that it shapes our values to be countercultural (most of the time), so that we live our lives with a center other than that of a world corrupted by materialism, egotism and greed, just to mention a few.

Baptism-confirmation: One rite symbolic of new birth

Baptism-confirmation: One rite symbolic of renewed humanity

Our embrace of Christian values alters our consciousness such that we begin to feel the struggle between what comes naturally and what comes supernaturally in light of faith: loving one’s enemies, for example, doing good for those who hate me, even loving my neighbor as I love myself (which means loving myself as God loves me, warts and all, and letting that divine love pour through me to bless my neighbor). Such a consciousness affects relationships with family and close friends, and here is where we find the most intense difficulties, because there’s usually a lot of emotional freight attached. We learn, too, that it’s best simply to let God’s love show rather than trying to change the “rules” of our relationships. Walking the walk will change the world. Merely talking the talk will not.

A great deal of the ritual power of baptism has been lost in many Christian traditions. We seldom baptize by immersion. We seldom baptize adults. It is our practice – and it is arguably a traditional practice – to baptize infants and for sponsors or “godparents” to make baptismal promises on their behalf. The ancient exception to the rule of baptizing adults has become the norm in many denominations.

In practice, baptism is virtually meaningless to a baby; and in fact, godparents are seldom diligent in seeing that their godchildren are brought up in Christian faith. Our practice of baptism is “valid” – babies do become Christians (though some Christians would disagree) – but the issue here is whether we’ve so sentimentalized our initiation rite that it’s been deprived of its power to transform lives. This matter has been raised again and again in Christian history, and one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States is founded at least in part on rejecting the premise that pouring water on babies’ heads constitutes Christian baptism.

Is this a reformable issue in the Episcopal Church? Probably not, because we’re so steeped in the custom – and it feels so good! – that we’re unlikely ever to change it. It would require so radical a rethinking of Christian initiation – its theology and its practice – that widespread liturgical reform would be seen as more trouble than it’s worth; moreover, it would take generations, and Americans simply aren’t accustomed to thinking in such terms. Besides, we have so much emotional investment in baptizing babies – and it’s a shame. We’re depriving adults of a signal moment in the life of faith, and we’re depriving our children of the blessed liberty to choose Christ for themselves. We once baptized infants to ensure their salvation if they died in infancy, a superstition come down through the centuries that is even more so today. It’s clear that our practice of baptism is more about the feelings of parents and grandparents than it is about children and their nurture in Christian faith. It’s become a feel-good sacrament of the moment, and its transformational implications and consequences are virtually ignored. We’re talking the talk – our liturgical theology of Christian initiation is right on the money – but we’re not walking the walk.


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