Holy Baptism: New Life for Young and Old Alike – Br. Curtis Almquist
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I was twenty years old when I was baptized. I chose to be baptized. I had been raised in a conservative Protestant tradition of the church which sees baptism as a rite intended for adult Christian believers. In that tradition, if you are to be baptized, you must know what you are doing because the baptismal vows that you make are personal: they are your vows marking your salvation, vows not taken on behalf of someone else.
In the earliest tradition of the church, at least for the first four centuries, adult baptism was normally preceded by the “catechumenate.” This was a three-year time of instruction and preparation for an adult who was to be baptized and incorporated into the membership of the church.[i] Momentarily we here will be invited to renew our own “Baptismal Covenant,” which is a very adult kind of thing to be doing.[ii] All of us here who are baptized will be asked to respond to questions that begin with very decisive verbs: “Do you believe…?” “Will you continue…?” “Will you proclaim…?” “Will you strive…?” Yes or no?
While all this is going on, it is safe to say that our rather youthful baptismal candidate, Anuoluwapo Liliane, will probably be quite oblivious to what’s going on. “Anu” may even be asleep, maybe crying. Oh dear. She gives us witness to a different baptismal tradition: infant baptism, which, from our reading of the Acts of the Apostles, we may also infer was going on with the earliest followers of Jesus. [iii] By the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm, where whole households, whole nations, came to experience themselves as Christian.[iv] Holy Baptism became as much a cultural identity as it was a spiritual identity. Infant baptism came to be the more familiar pattern of initiation into the life of the church.
Both baptismal traditions – adult “believer” baptism and infant baptism – have precedence and integrity. In my own experience, I look back and see in actuality that when I was baptized at age 20, I barely had a clue what I was asking for. In many ways I was as much a “newborn babe” as “Anu” is, and it shall take a lifetime for me (and likely for Anu and for you) to live into the maturity of our baptismal vows. The difference in age between a between a seventy year old and a two month old is but a blink in the timeline of eternity. We are all children of God, regardless of our chronological age.
Our baptizing “Anu” today emphasizes God’s initiative in all of this: that it is God who is the source of our lives, and God who is the end of our lives, and it is God who calls us and desires us to be in union with God forever. It is God who seeks us out, God who has all the time in the world for us. Baptism is an act which anticipates its completion in the future, with a person’s own confession of faith. We shall pray that “Anu” will someday personally confirm the baptismal vows we are making on her behalf today.[v] What is true for “Anu” (as has been true for me and probably you), is understanding baptism as an initiation, not as a completion.
For us here, I will name two very significant things about today’s baptism. For one, we call baptism “a Sacrament.” Now here’s a test question, not for “Anu” but for us adults: What is a Sacrament? Do you remember? “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”[vi] We actually understand baptism as a spiritual sign of “new birth.” Jesus said that it’s like “Anu’s” being “born again” after just having been born for the first time only a couple of months back. That is, Anu’s being born again into “a body” which is much bigger than her little body. I’m speaking metaphorically about the church being like a body with many different bodily parts.[vii] Up to this point, Anu’s identity is as a child of her parents, Deji and Stacy, her godparents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and cousins. As of today she is also our sister. We shall from now on belong to one another like a hand belongs to an arm. We are all different parts of one body, which is Jesus’ metaphor for the church.
There is also this baptismal sign of the “washing away of sin.” It stretches our imagination to think how precious little “Anu” could in any way be sinful. Soiled diapers and irregular sleep patterns that may keep her parents awake certainly don’t count as sin. But given the world into which she has been born – a world so ravaged by evil in which we adults have both suffered and colluded – we could see this as a kind of washing from the contamination of the world which surrounds her, a world which will affect her and which could also infect her. Baptism gives “Anu” a kind of fresh access to the Spirit of God who blew over the first waters of the creation giving us life and light and love.[viii]
Which is the second point. We all here who are witnesses have a role. We have had a role already in the shaping of the world in which Anu is being raised. We now pledge ourselves anew to the reforming of this world, to our intentionally co-operating with God in our own conversion to Christ, and helping Anu in hers. We pledge ourselves as instruments of her formation, joining with her parents and godparents and other loved ones to point the way to Christ. As any parent or godparent will know, children model what they see. This precious child, “Anu” has every reason to look at all of us here and to others who call themselves “Christians” as models for what it means to “grow in Christ.”[ix]
We will symbolically wash “Anu” in this great baptismal tub. We will anoint her with holy oil, a traditional “sealing with oil” signifying the Spirit of God come upon her and within her. And we will give a candle of light to her godparents on her behalf. The candle is a symbol of light for the soul.
I suspect that all of us here who are adults know about the dark night of the soul that may come with the changes and chances of life, often through the experience of loss, or injustice, or prejudice, and suffering. None of us would wish those experiences onto “Anu” as she grows up. But if her life experience is like mine and probably yours, she will grow into the awareness of some suffering that surrounds her and, at some points, may affect her quite deeply. Some day the symbol of this candle may be a great comfort for her to realize we knew she would need a sign of light during a future time that seems without light. The symbolic candle is a beacon of hope which she cannot yet appreciate but we do, her sisters and brothers. It is not easy to be alive these days. Probably never was. But it is possible absolutely thrive in life if we have help. We are God’s help for “Anu.” We are the help for one another. We, together, are like different parts of a body, and we need one another to be whole. All of us who are baptized have a mission in life. All of us are God’s missionaries wherever we go.
Today we have the joy of baptizing Anuoluwapo Liliane. Anuoluwapo is a Nigerian name meaning “God’s mercy is abundant.” The name Liliane is derived from the Latin for “lily,” a flower symbolizing innocence, purity, beauty. Today we pray God’s blessing on Anuoluwapo Liliane, who, in turn, has already become a channel of God’s blessing, not just to her parents and godparents and loved ones, but to all of us. She is a blessing from God, and a blessing to God, and a blessing and to us – God’s blessing. Blessed Anu.
Lectionary Year and Proper: 2021-22 – A
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Fourth Sunday of Easter
[i] This perspective on baptism as intended for adult believers has been widely held by many Protestant groups throughout the western church since the sixteenth century Reformation. The Anabaptist tradition (‘re-baptizers’, from the Greek άνα and βαπτίξω) was comprised of groups on the Continent of Europe who in the sixteenth century refused to allow their children to be baptized and reinstituted the baptism of believers.
[ii] See “The Baptismal Covenant,” in The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305.
[iii] Acts 16:14-15.
[iv] Insight drawn from “The Meaning of Baptism” in Sacraments & Liturgy, by Louis Weil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), pp. 68-74.
[v] Weil, p. 71.
[vi] See “The Catechism” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857ff.
[vii] The metaphor of “body,” e.g., Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26.
[viii] See Genesis 1.
[ix] “Growing in Christ,” e.g., Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10.
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Br Curtis, I am grateful for this wonderful teaching about baptism and deeply loving spiritual insight into the sacramental meaning and reality of baptism.
You are a blessing from and to God and to us.
I love your reflections about baptism! I was baptized in the Presbyterian church when I was 13 years old and also being confirmed. I vividly remember when our confirmation class was brought into the sanctuary so the minister could speak to us briefly. He said that in the Presbyterian church all you need to become a member is to believe, have faith. We were each to write our confession of faith. I was totally shocked! I thought to my 13 year old self that I didn’t know what I believed and that I thought the reason we were there was for them to tell us what to believe. I remember agonizing over this, but finally thinking that I would just kind of paraphrase the Apostle’s Creed which we had been memorizing for the class! So that’s what I did. On Maundy Thursday I received my first holy communion, and as I observed what was happening, saw the Elders go forward to receive the elements, God opened my eyes and my heart and I was overcome with awe. For me it was an unforgettable glimpse of why we are all here. We all have our own stories of how we come to believe. I have always been so grateful that my awakening happened in that way, and that I remember my baptism. Here I am many years later, about to celebrate my 80th birthday and still marveling at the mystery of coming to believe, over and over again. This season of baptism I pray we will all bless one another and grow in our faith together!
Your homily was both moving and a blessing – as you say for Anu and all of us in need of light in our lives.