In the world of Christian baptism, everyone falls into two categories: the sprinklers and the dunkers. Of course, this is an over-simplified way of viewing an ancient Christian sacrament, but when you’re just a kid, and your theology is inspired more by Episode V than the Epistles, you just take a grown-up at their word and forget about it.
We were dunkers. The preacher would place one hand behind a person’s head and the other hand in front, over their crossed arms. Then he would lean them backward and plunge them completely under the water while praying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” As soon as he began pulling them back up, there would be a flurry of submarine motion as the newly-baptized Christian came out of the water, simultaneously wiping their eyes and trying to regain their balance.
I don’t remember my own baptism. I’ve seen a picture of it, so I know it happened. But I have no memory of it ever happening.
I was about eight years old, growing up in Florida. Some of the bigger churches back then had “baptismal pools,” which were usually located at the top of the stage in the church, behind the choir loft. The only way I know how to describe one of those things is for you to imagine what it would look like if a hot tub made a baby with an aquarium. But we didn’t have one of those, so I was baptized in a lake.
I remember finding a picture, years later. I was looking through a shoebox full of hundreds of snapshots, and I came across a picture of me, standing in chest-high water. In the photo, there’s a dock. My dad is there, in the water with me, but I don’t remember if he performed the immersion or if it was someone else. I remember flipping over the photograph when I found it, looking on the back, and seeing where my mom had written the date and location in ballpoint pen.
But that’s it. That’s the extent of it. I don’t remember everyone’s hushed prayers before I went under or the shouts of “Hallelujah!” on my way up. I don’t remember if the water was warm or cool, what it felt like when it soaked the last dry bits of my shirt, or if the water rushed into my nose, burning its way down my throat.
I remember nothing.
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it, the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it, you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.
In it, your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.
In it, we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it, we share in his resurrection.
Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
—from the “Thanksgiving Over the Water,” The Book of Common Prayer
This is the first week after The Epiphany in the liturgical calendar, the week we celebrate “The Baptism of Our Lord.” In the story, John is perplexed, because Jesus has shown up to the muddy water of the Jordan River to be baptized, to make a public statement of repentance, like all the other sinners on the banks of the river. But Jesus wasn’t a sinner! He didn’t need forgiveness!
It’s true: Christ was sinless and didn’t need to be forgiven. John knew this from the moment he saw Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John knew that he was looking into the eyes of the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world, that Jesus was the one who would give all of his disciples a new kind of baptism—an immersion into the Holy Spirit and fire. So John protested, like any decent person would when they are presented with an extravagant gift. “But I can’t except this.” Jesus did need to be baptized by John, however, and at least three reasons come to mind.
First, even though Christ was sinless, he still needed to repent. He needed to turn and walk in another direction, away from the path he had been walking, and so he does. As soon as he comes out of the water and receives the blessing of his heavenly father, he immediately turns his back on society and comfort and the normal life he could have lived as a human man, and he walks even further into the wilderness to endure the first of many trials—a forty-day fast.
Second, Jesus was instituting the first of the Sacraments: Holy Baptism. “He tells John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” He was setting an example to all of us, showing us what we should do at the beginning before we even begin following in his footsteps. This is the same thing he would do at the last supper, where he took the bread and wine and shared the meal with his disciples, instituting Holy Communion, initiating them into yet another mystery.
Lastly, Jesus needed to be baptized to do the will of his father, and this is evident, because the Spirit of God suddenly shows up, probably scaring everyone half to death, just so the father could brag about his son. “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
If there would have been no other reason, this last one would have been enough. Jesus came to the river, to John, to be baptized, because it was what his father wanted.
Last month, through the magic of a Christmas gift card turned Amazon purchase, I bought a book by Tish Harrison Warren, who splits and mingles her time between living life as a priest, a wife, and a mother. It’s called Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, and it’s been a blessing and an encouragement to me in several ways, including helping me to better understand my adopted Anglican faith.
She tells a story about the infant baptism of her daughters. She talks about how her congregation sang over the babies, sang one of the first songs I learned to sing as a child, “Jesus Loves Me.”
It was a proclamation: before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf. We are weak, but he is strong.
Infant baptism is a covenant, one between God and the community of faith in which they will grow from a child to an adult. It is a promise made by those responsible for the baby, a promise to rely upon the grace and mercy of God. It is a vow to trust God with the soul of a child when it begins to explore the inevitable paths of fear and anxiety, of doubt and certainty, of hate and indifference.
This covenant is unique, however, because it is not one initiated by the mind or heart or free will of a fully cognizant adult. It’s like spotting a burning bush in the desert, like a dream of a staircase to heaven full of angels, like a vision of the marriage of Christ to his Bride: it happens to you, just the once, and you spend the rest of your life responding to it—even if you never remember it happening.
All I have is the memory of a seeing a photo. The water has long-since evaporated. The handshakes and hugs afterward were deleted by my mind. If there was a picnic afterward (and I hope, for my sake, it was fried chicken), I’ll never recall the taste of that food, never remember sharing that meal with anyone.
I don’t even know why I went through with it. It could have been a sincere response to the Spirit of God, or I could have simply been going along with the conventions of my religious sub-culture. Maybe the only reason I did it was to please my father. If so, then I take comfort in knowing that it would have been enough for Christ, and so it is enough for me.
“When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
—Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Colossae, a city in modern-day Turkey
Raise us up daily, Lord, in the washing of our spirits through a continual baptism of our hearts, a daily dying of our flesh, and a perpetual resurrection of our spirits.