Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Baptism

   In The Lion King, the newborn Simba was anointed with coconut juice, and then raised high in the arms of Rafiki at the pinnacle of Pride Rock, to the acclamation of all the creatures of the jungle (with everyone singing “The Circle of Life”). Jesus, like all Jewish boys, was circumcised on his eighth day. The miracle that is the birth of a child: you have to do something special.

The application of water to an infant? The baby has already had a few baths. The newborn’s body is already more than eighty percent water! And the largely amphibious child has just emerged from a watery voyage, just now unsubmerged from an entirely watery place where it lived quite contentedly immersed for months. Water is a splendid symbol of what we drink, how we wash, or beauty in nature. Water really is simply who we are. We pour or sprinkle a little water on a watery one, pretty much saying You are who you are. God’s blessing comes to you through what you already are. Grace overflowing. And just in case you are understandably missing the water home that was yours for so long, here’s a little water on you to draw you and the rest of us closer to our home with God.

You might think of every bath you take as a recollection of your Baptism, and of who you are and where you came from. That historic admonition, “Remember your Baptism, and be thankful,” even if you can’t summon the memory up in your mind’s eye, does make space for this grand act of grace to be grace for you. Martin Luther regularly said, “There is no greater comfort on earth than baptism.” When he was in despair, he would remind himself, “I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me.” So each time we witness a Baptism, we should be comforted, and strengthened for the journey.

P.T. Forsyth asked a great question: What good does Baptism do for me or that child? But instead, we might ask, What is the active witness and service the Church renders to the active Word of Christ’s Gospel in the Baptism of young or old? Sacraments are necessary for the health of the Church. Baptism is necessary for the world the Church has to convert.

   The priest blesses the water – but the prayer does not change the water into some magic elixir. It is God’s presence that is the sanctity of the water, the water in the font and the water that literally is the majority of the one being baptized. Because God is there, we are careful about baptizing. We don’t pour the water from a milk jug or a paint bucket. And we don’t pour the water into a dog food bowl or a sippy cup. Church sanctuaries feature permanent, solid, well-crafted vessels to hold the water. The symbol of that vessel matters when we remember God’s gift of life and grace.

Not far from where I live, the basilica at Belmont Abbey features a rough hewn stone font which is the ultimate in re-purposing. In antebellum North Carolina, this rock served as the trading block upon which slaves were auctioned. Decades later, the stone was adapted to serve as the church’s font. Its inscription reads: “Upon this rock, men were once sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, men become free children of God.”

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