Lesson 5: Baptism as Ritual

ancient baptistryBack in seminary, quite some time ago, I read an account of an early baptism. My recollection is that it might have been the earliest detailed rite that has come down to us. The candidates had been extensively prepared. Although they could participate in the early part of the worship service, they had been dismissed before the Eucharist. In other words, they had never even witnessed the Lord’s Supper. Now they stood outside the Church before a cross dug into the ground and filled with water.

I remember four distinct parts to the ritual. The first was an exorcism in which the candidates renounced the devil and all his ways. The second was the main act of baptism when they walked down into the cross where the presider poured water over them. As they emerged walking up the opposite side, a white robe was placed over their naked bodies and they performed the third part that was the confirmation. They confessed the creed of the community of which they were now a part. They then proceeded into the church where they shared, for the first time, the communal meal.

That still serves as a model for our practice, although we could work on improving various parts. There should, at the least, be an abundance of water. If it is difficult to have the baptized stand in water, there should still be a lot poured over their heads. Remember, the biblical symbolism is drowning as well as washing.

The fact that this is the entrance to a new life with Christ is hard to express when so many of our baptisms are family affairs in which the infants’ parents rather awkwardly accede to the grandparents’ wishes. Maybe one way to handle this is to have the grandparents join the party at the font. Chances are their expressions would express the significance of the sacrament. At any rate, every effort should be made to avoid the quaintness so often associated with the modern ritual.

I especially think welcoming the newly baptized into the community should be emphasized. Some parishes do this by having the pastor carry the newly baptized infant through the congregation. I find that emphasizes the institutional rather than the communal nature of the service. I would rather have the parents carry the child. The pastor and the rest of the party could follow along. If the parents had come home to the grandparents’ congregation, they should certainly walk along. I can imagine close friends standing up to embrace the participants and kiss the infant.

I think it is even more important to work on this with adult baptisms. People should come forward to embrace and welcome the new members to the community. The passing of the peace could be moved to this point, but should be especially centered on the baptismal party.

I would also like to promote the welcome to the Lord’s Table. I am not sure we are ready to commune the infant as the Greek Orthodox do, although I think it would be a great idea. However, there is no reason we could not commune the baptismal parties first as a sign. The pastor could at least bless the infant first thing at the table. For sure, those baptized as adults should be communed first, ideally accompanied by their sponsors and closest friends in the congregation to express the joy of the moment.

The importance of face-to-face community is captured when we realize there is no way to practice a sacrament online. Only being personally present to one another affords the vulnerability of Christian love. We really have to make ourselves fully available to each other. However, in this technological society in which friends and families live far from one another, it certainly expresses the significance of the sacrament when people enable others to participate via Skype or FaceTime. I think the church should encourage this but also help keep it appropriate by suggesting a good place for the recorder, so it does not intrude on the service or separate the congregation from the action.

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  1. John Myers says:

    What a wonderful lesson. I agree with every point being made and suggest these changes be considered at a higher level. The account of the early Baptism service is very moving and I think we have become far too ritualistic in our modern services, bypassing an opportunity for so much more emotional investment in the Sacrament – especially in a time when it is harder to get young parents to understand the importance and meaning.

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