The Protestant church accepted two sacraments from its Catholic roots: Eucharist and baptism. The idea that this matters comes out of Jesus’ own baptism; John the Baptist (when you’re that good at something, it becomes all of who you are) made a whole career out of prophesying that the kingdom of Heaven was coming so you should probably take a spiritual shower—that is, be baptized and confess your sins. It became important enough that Jesus Himself came down to the Jordan River for the rite. This, understandably, freaked John out a bit, partly since Jesus had nothing to confess and partly since that would be like telling the pope how to run mass. He knows this way better than you do. But when John tried to protest, Jesus said chill out, it has to be this way. So John baptized Him and a dove come down and God said, “Yup, this One’s Mine” and this is usually seen as the beginning of the three year’s of Jesus’ ministry.
So since Jesus did it, we tend to think we should (this does not apply to the crucifixion business). However, because we’re human, we have all sorts of ideas about how to do this. Should a person be totally dunked in order for it to count or does putting a handful of water on his/her head count? Should it be done when you’re older, like Jesus, or younger because it’s a recognition of God’s grace being with you for the whole of your life? Does it have to be in a river or other natural water source or is a water tank just fine?
I myself have been baptized twice, which is a bit sacrilegious and it totally scandalizes Interpreter. It’s not because I was trying to outdo Jesus; rather, I got stuck in the mess of humans trying to figure out the holy. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, none of which I remember. When I came to the faith myself and actually started believing this Jesus business, the denomination I found didn’t recognize infant baptism. For them, it had to be a choice you consciously made and a promise of which you were aware. So I was baptized again—and I remember that one, as the water was hella cold and I got totally dunked. In Church rather than spiritual terms, I’m glad I have both of these to draw from because I can have this conversation in a way that few others can. I get that it’s not such a great idea to treat this sacrament like a spiritual pick-me-up that you do every time you re-seal your commitment to God, though. This isn’t like the Eucharist; it’s supposed to be a one-for-all deal.
Someday I’m going to write an article on the use of baptism to legitimize historical rulers (the way history re-wrote the baptism of Constantine to more closely match Jesus, for instance, is pretty fantastic. It even has some conversion of Paul thrown in for good measure. Man, I love medieval theology). I won’t do that to you, though. I will instead tell you a story about how baptism ever so quietly sauntered into my life this week.
So I work with middle schoolers, which is a beautiful and frustrating and marvelous and God-awful thing. Middle school boys especially are God’s gentle reminder that you are not God and that humans are essentially rebellious creatures. They’re also the reminder, though, that humans are made in the image of their creative Maker, endlessly wondrous and marvelously curious. It’s a wide-spectrum job.
We’re getting closer to confirming some of them (confirmation is another sacrament that I’ll talk about in two weeks; stay tuned!) and the lesson this past week was about birth and re-birth and how very often Christianity uses the language of being born. Much of that is tied into the use of water; our bodies are made mostly out of water, the amniotic fluid that surrounds us in the womb is mostly water, the planet on which we live is mostly water. And what gets used in baptism, the very symbol of birth and rebirth?
Water, of course.
Interpreter was teaching and decided to bring along a bowl of water. It wasn’t to baptize the kids but rather to help them (those who had already been baptized) to remember their baptism.
Now, this is not literal; since most of the kids were baptized as babies, they can’t actually remember their baptisms. But it’s a symbolic thing: remember the commitments made on your behalf; remember the Presence of God that never leaves you; remember the faith into which your parents (or whoever was present at the original baptism) have brought you. Remembrance of baptism involves putting a hand of water on someone or flicking water at people (so yes, this is one of the best things pastors get to do).
Since I was standing right next to Interpreter, he handed me the bowl to hold while he poured the water and explained to the kids what they were to do. And Reader, I almost dropped it.
I was suddenly shaking with this beautiful and history-laden bowl in my hands, shaking as the water splashed into it and the weight of this sacrament poured over me, shaking as I looked backward to the baptisms I have seen and been part of and forward to the ones I will be performing one day. It was one of those unexpected “take off your shoes because this is holy ground” type moments, and I shook.
I did not drop the bowl, but as each confirmand came up and grabbed a handful of water I trembled in that thin place and knew it to be holy. The sacrament was sacred, as it is meant to be. I wonder if any of the kids felt the same.
When Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven open. The Holy Spirit came down on him like a dove. A voice came from heaven and said: “You are my Son and I love you. I am very pleased with you.” (Mark 1:10-11, ICB)