The Creative Spirit - Baptism


Baptism is our proof and our confirmation of our Creative God: a God who in his love and longing to be one with us, reaches out and invites us to join with him in being creative. Physically, he enables us to procreate, to bear new life as a continual development and sign of human unity. Spiritually, too, he enables us to procreate, to bear new life in faith as a result of our unity in faith with him and with one another.

Baptism is Our Beginning, Not Our Arrival

It is only when we are afraid to show our weaknesses, afraid of what others may do to us or afraid of being ignored, that we move into the false security of isolation.

Jesus came to free every person from such isolation. He came to make us truly free and in his life he showed us the reality of what being human really meant. Being truly human means being Christlike. Anything which prevents that makes us less than a fully human being.

Our baptism is simply the beginning of our life of faith - the beginning of getting to know and understand what being loved by God means. Baptism is God's token to us of his great love - it's a love token. In all sacraments faith carries us forward to the sacrament, but when we are babies it is the faith of our parents which carries us to the sacrament. It follows then that to fulfill the true meaning of the sacrament and to achieve the authenticity of the sign of Baptism, there must be continuing teaching and example of living faith. If this doesn't happen, although the sacrament is valid, the significance of it is prevented from having its full effect.

It's easy to see, then, that what happens after baptism is vitally important if we are to experience the fulfillment of the promise of this fundamental sacrament.

What Difference Does Baptism Make?

At Baptism, we join God's family and become a baby Christian. As with most things in life, being baptized won't necessarily make much difference to us unless there is further input. Being baptized is the beginning of something, it is not an isolated event or a magic moment which acts like a good luck charm for life. Jesus Christ asks us to baptize in his name so that parents, godparents and God can work together in a creative partnership throughout the crucial years ahead as we grow to maturity.

For the first nine months of life a baby lives in the womb totally dependent on its mother for life and nourishment. After birth a baby continues to be dependent on its mother and the immediate family for continuing care for many years until he or she is mature enough to live as an adult.

A baby only grows and will only continue growing as long as the care, protection and guidance needed to reach successful maturity continues to be given. In the same way a "baby" Christian will only grow and continue to grow as a Christian if there is support, example and teaching throughout childhood and adolescence. By bringing their child to be baptized, parents are giving a sign to the world that they and God are indeed partners working together for the complete development of their child - body and soul. As with other aspects of growing up, if support and encouragement is not given or is withdrawn too early, permanent immaturity is the result. It's not too difficult to spot that amongst ourselves as Christians.

Our Faith Makes a Creative Difference

It's very difficult to be a member of a family if you never have any contact with other members of the family. And it's very unreasonable to expect anyone to bring up a child as a Christian if they're not trying to live as Christians themselves.

For these reasons the Church is more concerned than ever today that parents who ask for their child to be baptized also understand what is involved and understand what their commitment and responsibilities will be concerning the growing faith of their child. It's no good expecting anyone to bring up a child as a Christian when neither parent is practicing their faith.

Often parents ask for baptism for their baby because they think it's a nice celebration for the family or the grandparents say that the baby must be baptized. It may be that they think of baptism as a special kind of blessing which will safeguard the child. All these reasons are very understandable but they have nothing to do with baptism.

As we have seen, in baptism, it is the faith of the parents which brings the baby to church. Babies are baptized because as children of believing and practicing Christians, they have been born and are living within the Christian community. Baptism brings them into this family of God. Being part of a family means growing up in the ways of that family. It means belonging, learning, sharing, in a certain way of life. That is the meaning of baptism; it's a sign of the beginning of life as a Christian.

What is the point of baptizing a baby if he or she will not be able to grow and develop within the family of God? If parents are not practicing their faith they cannot be expected to be able or willing to pass it on to their child. It is unfair and unreasonable to tie any child to a Church and way of life to which they will have no real attachment other than being bound by certain church laws as an adult. Our faith is a creative relationship with God, not a set of rules.

The faith of parents and godparents, then, is crucial in baptism. This is why the minister may require parents and godparents to attend a course of preparation, so that they will be able to make the baptismal promises conscientiously.

The Creativity of God - Baptism is our Invitation

God created us with great love. He wanted us to exist; he wanted us to be part of his creative life.

Since our baptism, our beginning of life in and with Christ, we may have lost sight or perhaps forgotten God's creativity in our life. Whatever has happened to us, whatever the quality of our relationships with the Church and with other Christians, God continues to invite us to share in his creativity.

What is Baptism?

Baptism means "plunging". Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by John. The sign of the Holy Spirit was seen, and the Father's voice was heard, "This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him." (Matthew 3:17)

Jesus called his death and resurrection a "baptism". To his apostles he said, "Are you willing to be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?" In this baptism Jesus was "plunged" into death but the Father raised him up by giving him the Holy Spirit.

Baptism is the sign instituted by Jesus to unite us with his own baptism. What happened at Jesus' death and resurrection is what happens at baptism, so that Paul could write, "When we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too might live a new life." (Romans 6:3-4)

Baptism is a sign of salvation because it is the sacrament introduced by Jesus to make us part of his Body, the Church. Jesus told Nicodemus, "I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (John 3:5)

Godparents

In the earliest days of the Church, the sponsors at the baptism of a child were the parents. But as most of the baptisms in those days were of older candidates this was often not possible. Many parents of converts could not or would not stand as sponsors. Slaves were without their parents, and many younger children had been abandoned by their parents and had to be taken in by Christian communities. Very often sponsors at these baptisms were deacons or deaconesses. Only one sponsor was required, in the case of adults they had to be of the same sex as the candidate. These sponsors were called "spiritual parents" and their duty was to give instruction both before and after baptism and to be a guardian of the spiritual life of the baptized person. This is the origin of the term "godparent".

Today, the role of godparents is secondary in the case of infant baptism. If necessary, godparents should be ready to help in the spiritual education of their godchild. It's important that godparents are sufficiently mature (usually over sixteen) and confirmed, practicing members of the Church, so that they can conscientiously promise to help bring the child up in the same way. A parent cannot be the only godparent to his or her own child.

Water

This is for cleansing and is a sign that our sins are washed away. Baptism cleanses us from original sin with which we are all born and, in the baptism of adults, of every sin committed prior to baptism.

Water is also a sign of new life. The newly baptized is given the new life of the Holy Spirit which unites the person in the life of the Trinity. We call this new life "sanctifying grace."

The Christian name given at the "Christening" is a symbol of the truth that the newly baptized person belongs to Christ and is made like him.

What are the Effects of Baptism?

In theological language, baptism gives us the "character" of Christ. This is like the impression made by a parent on their child; it is permanent and irrevocable. Augustine compared the baptismal character to the mark or seal tattooed on a soldier to show who was his lord. When the sacrament is celebrated validly the baptismal character is always given. Therefore, this sacrament can never be repeated.

Because baptism confers the character of Christ, it gives the one who is baptized a share in Christ's priesthood and the power therefore to worship. This is the reason why a person must be baptized before being able to celebrate any other sacraments.

Conversion and Adult Baptism

Conversion means literally turning round - which is why the first question the candidate is asked at baptism is, "Do you turn to Christ?" When we become a Christian, we stop drifting with the way of the world and start swimming against the current - with Christ as the new direction of our lives. Sometimes this change happens dramatically, as when Paul was converted on the Damascus road. For most of us it happens slowly, often after a long period of experience and thought. But always it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, prompting us to see in Jesus the meaning and goal of our life, and to commit our lives to him.

In recent years, as the number of young children baptized has tended to decrease, the number of unbaptized adults seeking baptism has tended to increase. The situation is becoming more like that of the early centuries of the Church, when the Church's growth came mainly through the admission of adults.

In the oldest pattern of Christian initiation, adults were prepared over a long period, sometimes of some years. Entry to the Church normally happened at Easter, and during the season of Lent immediately before it, the candidates' preparation was at its most intense. The climax came on Easter Eve, when the candidates were baptized, and then confirmed immediately afterwards. So baptism and confirmation were originally part of a single rite of adult initiation. After confirmation the new Christians, clothed in white, were admitted to the altar and received Communion for the first time at the Easter Eucharist. The ceremony was timed and designed dramatically to underline that it is by baptism that we are made members of Christ's Body, the Church, and so united to the mystery of his death and resurrection.

The Separation of Baptism and Confirmation

It was only when the baptism of children became normal, around the fourth century, that in the western part of the Church baptism and confirmation were separated. Parents and godparents now made the baptismal promises on behalf of baptized infants, and confirmation was reserved to a later stage when the child had grown up and could answer for himself or herself.

These days, adults can sometimes feel embarrassed to ask for baptism, because it has come to be associated with babies in popular thinking. But it is important to remember that originally it was normally intended for adults. It also means, of course, that it does not make sense for an adult to seek baptism without also intending to receive the second part of Christian initiation in confirmation, and to receive Communion as a practicing member of the Church. So when an adult seeks admission to the Church, first there is a period of instruction and preparation, which will vary according to the individual. Then, when the candidate is ready, baptism, confirmation and first Communion are normally administered together at the same service, as happened originally though the service is no longer restricted to Easter.

Many have been baptized as children, or even confirmed, but real faith fails to flower in them. They have never felt it "on the inside", it has never become a reality for them, so they may even declare themselves atheists or agnostics. But then in later life, suddenly or slowly, a real and living faith dawns upon them, and they may ask for re-baptism or reconfirmation, feeling that it "didn't work", as it were, the first time.

Baptism and confirmation, however, are once-and-for-all sacraments. They cannot be undone or re-done. They remain effective pledges even if the fruit of faith is not immediately apparent after them, because God always leaves us free to accept or reject the grace he freely gives. If someone has only been baptized before the light of faith dawns, the appropriate way of declaring one's new commitment would be to seek confirmation. If baptism and confirmation have already been received, the appropriate way of returning to faith and the life of the Church is by the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and receiving the Eucharist. Sometimes too, especially in Evangelical churches, provision is made for a public profession of faith and commitment.

What Happens at Baptism?

Baptism is most appropriately celebrated at a public service, especially at the Eucharist, the Church's family meal. But it may also be administered at a separate service.

The priest welcomes the baptism party and explains that children are baptized on the understanding that they are brought up within the Church. The parents and godparents promise to do this.

The priest reminds the people about Jesus' command to baptize, the scripture may be read, and all join in prayer for those to be baptized.

The parents and godparents declare that they turn to Christ, repent of their sins, and renounce evil. Either at this point or after the baptism the priest makes the sign of the cross on the child's forehead, and all pray that he or she will fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the devil. The priest prays for the child's deliverance from the powers of darkness. (The signing may be made with the oil of catechumens if before baptism, with the oil of chrism if afterwards.)

The priest blesses the water of baptism, recalling Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, the saving of Israel through the Red Sea, and the resurrection of Christ "through the deep waters of death."

The parents and godparents declare that they believe and trust in the God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all present re-affirm their faith.

The baptism takes place. The priest pours the baptismal water three times over the forehead, naming the child and saying, " I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

A candle, lit from the Paschal candle, is presented as a sign that the child has passed from darkness into light.

All join in welcoming the new Christian into God's family. Finally prayers are said for the child's growth in the faith, for the parents, and for all present.

The Prodigal God
A Story Of Two Brothers
 Click title to read more