Baptism: A Symbolic Beginning
Tuesday, September 27, 2011Tweet
I've mentioned before how awesome our parish priest is. His homilies are clear and accessible while being incredibly challenging and thought-provoking. He puts a strong emphasis on the importance of community and building the Kingdom of God on earth rather than simply following a prescribed set of rules and then waiting to get into heaven. And he treats the Mass as a sacred celebration rather than a magical incantation, which means he's not afraid of occasionally speaking "off-script," such as telling us which themes to listen for in the readings or poking fun at himself if he has to stop and check what he's supposed to say next.
This past weekend there was a baptism at one of the Masses I was at, and I loved the approach our priest took, so I wanted to share my thoughts.
He emphasized baptism as the moment that we welcome a new person into our community. He explained each of the symbols of baptism in turn -- the water, the chrism, the white cloth, the candle -- and where we see these symbols again in some of the other sacraments. I especially loved when he talked about the water as part of our life: We drink it, we cook with it, we wash our clothes with it, we wash ourselves with it, and we're largely made up of it, so it makes sense that we would use it to symbolize life, as in the beginning of life in the church community.
What I loved about this is that he clearly recognized baptism for what it is: a symbolic ritual.
I think some people are turned off by the idea of baptism when it's presented as some kind of "magic water" that is going to make someone into a good person or a "Christian," whatever your definition of that is. Obviously that is not the case, and I can see how a person might be cynical if he or she was baptized and no longer believes in God.
But our priest didn't treat it like a magical ritual that was saving the soul of the child he was baptizing. He emphasized each of the symbols that we as humans use to indicate that we are welcoming a new person into our community. And then he made it clear that it is the responsibility of the community to teach this new member about our faith.
This is what I mean about our priest. He doesn't let us off the hook. He doesn't take the attitude that if you receive the sacraments and come to Mass every week, then you're good to go. He is much more concerned about how we interact with each other, how we treat each other and teach each other and everyone who is not part of our church community.
That resonated with me as someone who doesn't see the Christian life as a series of rules, but as a model of love for our time on earth.
Before I wrap this up, I want to share a great analogy I once heard about Catholic baptism. Someone wanted to know why we baptize babies (i.e., welcome them into the church) right after they're born, but if an adult wants to become a member of the church, they have to go through lots of classes.
This writer explained that when his daughter was born, he and his wife welcomed her into the family without question. She was dependent on them for her physical needs and also for learning about the world. On the other hand, when her daughter found a man she wanted to marry, they weren't ready to welcome him into the family without knowing anything about him first. He was an independent adult who could articulate his thoughts and beliefs. They wanted to take some time to get to know him and introduce him to their family before they could love him like a son.
And so it is with baptism: the Catholic church treats babies and adults differently.
In some faiths, I know, baptism is more of a declaration of your belief (at an age when you're able to do so) than a ritual to become part of a church community. How do you personally view baptism?