The season of Epiphany, squeezed in between the Christmas season and Lent, is the annual liturgical celebration of Jesus’ coming out party. The gospel texts over the next few weeks will follow Jesus as he calls disciples, performs miracles, gets thrown out of his hometown synagogue for claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, and delivers the Sermon on the Mount. The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Epiphany is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, the actual kickoff of the coming out party.
It has me thinking about several things, particularly the different ways in which the Christian groups I have spent my life with have handled baptism. What is the proper way to do it? Why do it at all? This takes me back almost four decades . . .
What is the best way to get the attention of a bunch of Episcopalians? I learned the answer to this question almost forty years ago when, after my first Sunday morning Episcopal worship service, I found myself downstairs in what they called the “undercroft” for coffee hour. There were at least fifty people gathered, eating pastries, drinking coffee, some smoking cigarettes (of all things)–the noise of conversation was deafening. Then the Dean of the cathedral entered the room and said loudly THE LORD BE WITH YOU! Upon which everyone parroted back AND ALSO WITH YOU! followed by dead silence. The joys of a liturgical church, in which some ways “trump” all others in terms of grabbing attention.
This is the phrase that every week introduces important chunks of liturgy, including the baptism of a baby, an event that I experienced for the first time soon after I started attending Episcopal services. The Episcopal procedure of baptizing infants was one of the few things that gave me pause when I discovered Anglican worship in my twenties. So much about the Episcopal way of doing things was attractive and an obvious spiritual balm to the scars I carried in my twenties from my conservative, fundamentalist upbringing. Liturgy, a pipe organ, excellent music, clerical robes, a prayer-book, weekly Eucharist—if I had been aware enough to design worship that spoke to my deepest aesthetic and spiritual needs, it would have been exactly like Sunday morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
But this baby-baptizing business was weird. After finishing the baptismal liturgy, the Dean would carry the baby up and down the center aisle of the cathedral, saying “This is the brand newest Christian in the world!” as the congregation applauded. For someone taught from his earliest memory that becoming a Christian required a “born again experience,” a once for all conversion event that required a certain level of rational maturity and spiritual awareness, this business of becoming a Christian simply by some water being poured on one’s head in the manner specified by the prayer-book was jarring. My own full immersion baptism, performed by my father in a swimming pool size baptismal when I was twelve, was what a baptism is supposed to be like. I’ve always thought, despite sacred art and Hollywood depictions, that John the Baptist did not just pour a bit of water on Jesus’ head that day in the Jordan River—he dunked him.
At this point in my life I find myself, in addition to being much older and (hopefully) experienced, in a significantly different place spiritually and find it somewhat amusing and quaint that I thought baby-baptizing might be a deal breaker. There are a few essentials in the Christian faith—the Incarnation, for instance—but the proper method to baptize someone, let alone the meaning of baptism, is not one of them. I even resist attempts to nail down the essentials. Try systematizing the mystery of the Incarnation and see how far you get before losing the mystery entirely. The beautiful words toward the end of the Episcopal baptismal liturgy points toward another mystery—“You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” If I believe that to be true, then former doctrinal issues with baptizing children dissolve into a puddle of irrelevance.
In Iris Murdoch’s novel Nuns and Soldiers, a central character has a vision in which she is visited in her kitchen by Jesus. As he leaves the room after a brief conversation, Jesus touches the woman on the hand. After the vision ends, she knows that her experience was not simply imaginary because her hand is painfully burned where Jesus touched her. Although the burn heals, and the pain eventually fades over the following days, a small but permanent scar remains. For the rest of her life her scar is an indelible reminder that she is forever changed because one day she encountered Jesus.
Perhaps baptism is something like that. Somewhere in the past and continuing history of those who are scarred by the mark of Christ are events, people, decisions, and experiences that form the skeleton, the internal structure of faith. A person’s spiritual identity is shaped by this structure, fleshed out in ways unique to each individual.
Some pieces of this identity come out of the blue, divinely tinged experiences that cannot be easily accommodated or dismissed. Others are deliberately chosen, such as a baptism, responding to an altar call, a choice of worship community, or turning away from what no longer gives life. As a person baptized as an infant grows older, that person will be able to identify their baptismal Sunday as a signpost of difference, even though they did not choose that signpost themselves. The imprint of the divine on a human life often has nothing to do with individual choice.
The beauty of the Incarnation is that each of the moments of all of our days are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur is not in the product, the greatness of what I or anyone, marked as Christ’s own, might become or achieve. The grandeur is not even in the gloriously random and holy experiences that leaven our lives. The grandeur is in the very idea of God in the flesh, an indwelling reality that sanctifies even our most mundane days and disturbing experiences. The Lord be with you . . . as the Lord always is.