Baptisms are one of my favourite things to do as a pastor. I have been privileged to preside at many over the years.
For most families coming for baptism, I have made the point of meeting with the family ahead of time to talk about the meaning, reasons, symbols and images of the rite. Baptisms present shameless opportunities to invite myself into the home of all kinds of folks for an hour, often people who might only be connected to church through grandparents, and talk about Jesus, faith and what it means to be a Christian.
(As an aside, if anyone thinks that pastors have a magical power to convince people to come to church, we don’t. Of all these pre-baptismal meetings I have done, the families who were actively engaged before remained so. And the families who weren’t active or who were even unchurched, also remained so. But I have seen many church members invite family, friends and neighbours to church who then became active members themselves.)
Pre-baptismal meetings have been great conversations about faith, about how we see God active in our lives and how families hope to see God active in the lives of their children. We also unpack the subtle but rich symbols of baptism: Water, Word, Oil and Candle. (Ask about an adult study if you want to know more!)
Equally as exciting is the baptismal rite in worship itself. Baptisms, though seemingly brief, are packed with liturgical action. There is the litany of questions and promises, the “flood prayer” declaring God’s actions and promises made in water, the “washing” of the candidate, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil and the candle lit from the light of the Paschal candle. That being said, the way that Lutherans tend to do baptism is often understated and to the point. We often get uncomfortable being too much on display and so we keep things somewhat restrained.
There is one baptism, however, that I will never forget. For all the baptisms that I had seen growing up in my home congregation or the ones that I had assisted with on internship, it was a baptism that took place during my final year of seminary that sticks out in my mind the most.
It was a baptism for the newborn child of a classmate and my best friend, presided over by our seminary liturgy professor in my final year. During one of our chapel services, we all gathered around the font. There, the deep and notoriously large bowl at the seminary was filled with water.
As the parents answered the questions, our professor held the child who was wrapped up in a warm blanket. As she prayed the “flood prayers”, her hands played in the water, splashing to remind us that water moves and has life. She then took green boughs, dipped them in the water and sprinkled the entire congregation, reminding us we were also baptized children of God.
Then the baby was unwrapped from the blanket, wearing nothing, and just like so many parents have done in kitchen sinks, our professor put the baby right into the water, sitting the child down as if she were having a bath. The baby was washed from head to toe in the warm water as the baptismal formula was proclaimed: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Then back into the warm towel the baby went. Laying her hands on the baby’s head, the pastor prayed the prayer of confirmation. Then she took some sweet smelling baby oil and carefully anointed the baby on the head, behind the ears, the chest and back, on each arm and hand, leg and foot. Our professor carefully made the sign of the Cross first on the child’s head, then over the baby’s mouth, on the heart, and then on each hand and each foot, each and every part of the baby, marking the child as belonging to Christ.
Finally, the baby was dressed in a baptismal gown: The white robes of the great multitude that gathers before the throne of God in the book of Revelation, the symbol of the baptized who belong to the Body of Christ. Robes that we could all wear when we gather for worship, but that at least the pastors wears to remind us that we are baptized.
Some part of me felt as if I had finally seen a baptism for the first time. Not that our normally restrained versions weren’t baptisms, but that they often only hinted at rich images and symbols of the rite.
There was something to the slow and careful ritual of preparing the whole body of the baby, of being unwrapped, fully washed, anointed (chrismated, as it is called in the Orthodox Church) with oil and dressed in the baptismal garment that made it clear that this little baby was now forever changed in the presence of the community. Something had happened to this baby – they now belonged to the church, to the Body of Christ in a way that they hadn’t before. It wasn’t that a box had been checked, or a certificate provided; it was that a journey and a transformation had taken place.
Of course all the ritual action doesn’t make the baptism more valid; all we need (as the small catechism reminds us) is Water and the Word.
But I do know that we can forget just what has happened to us in Baptism, just how we have been changed and transformed. As we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism this Sunday, we will be reminded of what God is doing with us and with the water. And we are reminded that this action of God is life changing.
Maybe some day we will build up to taking our time with liturgical action like my seminary professor did; but today we know that the work of God is the same in us, washing us from head to toe, anointing us fully and completely in Christ, naming and claiming each and every part of us for the sake of the Kingdom of God.