I recently had the privilege of preparing and baptising two babies at church, and I could not have asked for a pair of more lovely families or babies for my first time. Both sets of parents showed such generosity in welcoming me into their homes, as we thought about baptism together, and then entrusted me with their precious child while I poured water over him or her!! Little T. and R. were absolutely delightful too, and were very kind in not screaming/throwing up/poo-ing in my arms (not that those things would have mattered, of course, but I’m still glad they didn’t happen).
Infant baptism (or christening – same thing, different name) is one of those potentially divisive issues in the church. Some folk only practise what you might call a “believer’s baptism” (namely, that the person being baptised owns and believes the faith for themselves). In the Church of England we practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents own and believe the faith on behalf of the child, in the hope that that child will grow up into that faith him- or herself. As I understand it, the differences in opinion arise in part from an individualistic vs. a communal outlook on life, and in part as a reaction to the historical/superstitious practices of the medieval period (cf. the Reformation). I’m not sure that the Bible is definitive either way, and it basically hinges on how you interpret certain passages, and how much weight you give them (although it’s only fair to observe that Christians also disagree about this!!) As a member of the Church of England it is academic in any case – we baptise children, and we think that it’s a good thing. Anyway, if this sort of things float your boat, there are plenty of resources to look into this further – and a booklet from Grove Books is usually an excellent (and good value) starting place on almost any area of Christian thought.
What Christians do agree on, at least, is that baptism is something important and significant, and fundamentally the “why” comes down to the dominical command (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus told us to do it!) in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, when Jesus says “Go and make disciples of every people group, baptising them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.
So we agree on the “why”, we disagree on the “how” – but what I have been particularly thinking about is what baptism means, and what “happens” during it. Thankfully we have largely moved beyond the theology that anyone who isn’t baptised automatically goes to hell (and conversely, that anyone who is automatically doesn’t) – although once again some see this differently. I personally cannot reconcile God’s infinite grace, love, and unknowability with a formula that says “baptised == saved”. But I do also think that something happens.
I reckon part of the key is in symbols and symbolism. Now the danger with symbols is that it is very easy to think that, if something is symbolic, then it’s not real. One of our tutors at St Hild pointed out the wording on bank notes – “I promise the pay the bearer on demand…” In other words, the bank note itself isn’t money per se, but rather a promise that it can be exchanged for money at the bank. Or, you might say that the bank note is a symbol, a physical representation of something else. Yet I challenge you to find anyone who says a tenner isn’t real money! Something similar is going on with wedding rings and marriage. The gold band on my finger is still, essentially, just a lump of metal (who says romance is dead?!) I am no more or less married whether I am wearing the ring or not. I am no better or worse husband. Yet the ring is a symbol of the love and commitment – the visible sign of an invisible reality (to misappropriate St Augustine). Come to that, marriage itself is not – really – the definition of the relationship; I loved my wife no more one minute after the wedding then I did one minute before. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that marriage isn’t important (far from it), and actually something did change as we made a public and legal commitment to one another. My point is just that it is perhaps helpful to start to disentangle the underlying reality (in this case the relationship) from its physical/visible expression (wedding rings), especially when thinking about baptism.
So in baptism there are 3 main symbols/symbolic actions that occur in the service; the water, the candle, and the signing with the cross. The water is particularly rich in imagery and theology; although a lot of it hangs on the idea of full immersion – which is to say going completely under the water for a few moments. We don’t tend to do this with babies!! However, the sprinkling/pouring of water is intended to represent the full immersion. Most obviously, the water is about being washed clean. Being made utterly new, as if we had never known dirt (or done anything wrong). It also carries the less obvious imagery of dying and rising, with the submersion representing being buried, and the coming out of water like being raised to life again. There is something about being (re)born – emerging from the waters of the font as if from the womb? (This not my favourite element of the symbolism!!) There is also a sense of being clothed in Christ; the water completely surrounds and encompasses, so Jesus completely encompasses us with new spiritual “clothes”, befitting of our new status as daughters and sons of God. I suspect there are other images in play as well. The signing with the cross and the candles are a bit more straightforward in their imagery, I think, but no less powerful. Anyway, there are many more accomplished theologians than me who can (and have) unpack all this, so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader…
Instead, and at the risk of completely going off on one, drawing the oblique analogy between marriage and baptism above set me to musing that maybe baptism is actually quite a lot like marriage? It’s not as strange as it might sound at first – after all the church (i.e. the baptised community of believers) is repeatedly described as the bride of Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a wedding. And if you describe marriage as making a public commitment, supported by friends, family, and the church, and entering into a lifelong relationship then suddenly it sounds just like (adult) baptism to me. With infant baptism it falls down a bit with the fact that a marriage is between consenting adults – clearly not the case here. So maybe infant baptism is a more like an engagement or betrothal? By which I mean a concrete promise made regarding a future commitment, with the hope and expectation (but no guarantee) of the fulfilment of that promise. To extend the analogy, in the Church of England, we call this fulfilment Confirmation (but I’m not going there in this post!)
We do have a little bit of translation to do; these days engagements don’t carry quite the same level of commitment and gravity that they used to, where breaking off an engagement was almost like a divorce. And to push it a bit further, maybe infant baptism is almost a bit like an arranged marriage? In the West we react very negatively to the concept of arranged marriages, obsessed as we are with rights, individual choice, and eros (romantic/erotic love). But if we can move beyond our own cultural filters, then someone (who knows us best and loves us the most) making a choice on our behalf (which they believe is the very best for us, our families, and local community) doesn’t sound entirely without merit… or a million miles away from infant baptism? Might there be some sense of the parents betrothing their child to Christ?
I fully admit this sounds a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that it is a helpful line of enquiry… I probably won’t be preparing my next baptism family by telling them they are putting their child into an arranged marriage! Yet I kind of think that there is something here. Either way, the symbols help us catch a glimpse of a deeper and wonderful reality, but one which is always ultimately going to end in mystery. Do I know what happens at baptism? No, not really. But at some level it is saying “yes” to Jesus, and at the end of the day that is enough for me.