On Sunday we had a baptism. It was a particularly moving one: parents not just bringing their baby to be baptised but seeking baptism themselves. And it set me to thinking about the sacrament of baptism. I wrote earlier on the Wrestling With the Bible site about the Eucharist, but I, like many others, am unfortunately prone to give baptism less thought. I suppose it is because it occurs only once in our lives, often when we are too young to remember it.
I was lucky enough to remember my baptism, not because I am a prodigy but because I was 11 years old when it happened. That year I transferred in the middle of Grade 6 into a Roman Catholic school, and it created a major conflict for my mother. On the one hand her Baptist upbringing made her want to wait for my baptism until I was old enough to consent with understanding. But an ancestral fear of Roman Catholicism made her interpret as sinister the surprise of the school registrar that I was not baptised. So before I could be whisked away to the school chapel and initiated into the fearful rites of papacy, I was whisked into the minister’s office at St Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio for the most excruciatingly bad explanation of atonement, redemption, and baptism I have ever experienced. Even then, ignorant as I was, I knew it was bad. All I remember now is that the explanation involved a runaway dog and someone buying it a licence to get it out of the pound. Not one of the classic theories, I believe. So I ended up, dressed in a white dress and gloves like a good Southern girl, listening to my godfather teasing me by saying that if my mother was still a Baptist I’d be soaking wet by then. My mother retorted then, as she would many times over the years, that she had been baptised and the rest of us had only been christened. The scorn in her voice is impossible to reproduce.
The important thing about my baptism is that it stuck. Despite the bad explanation of what it all meant, despite the fact that the idea hadn’t come from me at all, it stuck. Especially because I knew from the very beginning in my heart of hearts that I had not fully accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, I could not fully believe in Jesus’ saving work. So I lied. To God. To the big J.C., as Whoopi Goldberg’s character calls him in Sister Act. This goes to show that even bad attempts to make theology child-friendly can succeed on some level. I came away from that talk with the minister and that short afternoon service (no baptisms at Sunday services in those days) aware that if I believed in the God of Scripture I had a choice to make: did I consent to and enter a relationship with the triune God, was I adopted as a child of God with Jesus as my brother and his Father my heavenly Father? Was I in short washed in the Blood of the Lamb?
In time I came to feel not so much that I had lied as that by allowing myself to be baptised I had promised God on some level that I would indeed come round to belief some day. I had given a pledge that someday I would redeem (so to speak). In fact it was never that I didn’t want to believe as that I could not believe, I could not reconcile belief with the world as I knew it. Finally 7 years later I did come to belief, and was confirmed and renewed my baptismal vows in St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, where I was a university student. During those 7 years I had absorbed all sorts of religious information and ideas and emotions from many sources, my family, my Roman Catholic school, my father’s Unitarian church and my mother’s Episcopal church — we were a religiously eclectic family. But always in the back of my mind, like the Hound of Heaven in Francis Thompson’s poem, I was pursued by the thought of my promise.
In fact what had happened was that I had correctly understood one of the most important things about the sacrament of baptism: it leaves an indelible mark upon the baptised. In the liturgy we use now at Church of the Redeemer, the priest says when s/he makes the sign of the cross with chrism on the forehead of the newly baptised after the ‘sprinkling’, “I sign you with the sign of the Cross and mark you as Christ’s own forever.” I sensed that there was a change in me that would inevitably produce effects in my life and in my heart. The definition of a sacrament in the old Anglican catechism was that a sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality. In baptism, the sign is water, since water cleanses, and the spiritual reality is that the soul is cleansed from the power of Sin, which separated it from God. Now, because of baptism the new Christian can share in the familial relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit that John described in his Gospel; like the branches of the parable, our trust in God expressed through baptism joins us to the life-giving vine.
Equally importantly, our baptism joins us in fellowship not just with God but also with other men and women who have experienced the same washing from Sin and union with God. We become part of a community that has pledged to relate to God, God’s creation, and God’s people in a new way. That’s why the new practice of holding baptisms at main Sunday services is so important. It makes the new Christian(s) known to their community in a special way and makes the community known to them. Now we are all part of the body of Christ and of its particular manifestation in a particular time and place, and we are bound to uphold one another and help one another grow in love of God and each other. Baptism makes us all part of the same family. And just as in a family, some members may be scattered all over the country while others are together in the same city or even the same dwelling, some members of our church family live and worship far away while others join with us in one particular parish, in my case, the Church of the Redeemer.
The experience of baptism, if we commit ourselves to its promises and work with one another to grow in trust and love toward God and our neighbour, is a life-changing one. And it can take years for the full experience to come to fruition. My baptism didn’t begin to bear any visible fruit for 7 years, and then suddenly my whole life was different and has never been the same.