Where Logic Meets Love

Baptism: A Symbolic Beginning

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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Baptism: A Symbolic Beginning | Faith Permeating Life

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?


  1. Sounds like you have a really fantastic priest! Ours is very similar and, when he gives a homily, he tells it like it is. Sometimes even if it hurts. But isn't that what our "fathers" are supposed to do?

    I don't personally know of anyone who has been baptized who didn't receive it when they were an infant. Hmm. Maybe I'd have a better viewpoint if I knew of more kid/adult baptisms.

    Since, as a Byz Cath, we give babies all three rites of initiation at once, my view is even more muddied. There IS no time at which baptismal vows (made for you in baptism by parents and godparents) are reaffirmed. Not that teenagers usually take confirmations seriously--I didn't really get it although I was pretty serious w/ church. You also have no memory of celebrating the Eucharist for the VERY first time--you've always received. I wonder if my kids will have a different faith experience because of 3 in 1, vs. mine which was 3 things at 3 different times.

  2. I was baptized in a United Methodist church but not brought up there--my parents moved to another part of the country where the Methodists were different, and they wound up becoming Unitarians. My godparents kept up some relationship with us, and they're wonderful people, but they didn't have much influence long-distance.

    However, I sometimes wonder if my baptism made me more inclined toward Christianity as I grew up. I started attending Episcopal churches when I was 14. I was just confirmed on Sunday, at the ripe old age of 38! I've considered myself definitely an Episcopalian for so long that it was kind of just a formality, but the ceremony DID mean a lot to me as I felt the Holy Spirit and saw how pleased my church family was. :-)

    My son was not baptized as an infant because his father does not belong to an organized religion. The deal was that I could take Nicholas to church with me until he was old enough to object (he never has--fussed out of some specific services but has never questioned the idea of attending) and he could be baptized if and when he decided on it for himself. He made that decision just before he turned 3. He wanted to do it mainly because he wanted to receive Communion. My priest said that was fine; Communion is a mystery that none of us ever fully understands, so a child too young to "understand" is welcome to receive. But I did want Nicholas to understand what it means to be a Christian, so I read him the Baptismal Covenant and paraphrased each section in terms he could understand. In the ceremony he spoke for himself AND his godparents spoke for him. It's worked out pretty well; I think he did understand a lot of it then, and more every year!

  3. @Rabbit
    I don't think I knew that about Byzantine Catholics. That's really interesting!

    Some people (usu. in other Christian denominations) see baptism as the moment you declare your faith; since Roman Catholics are one of the denominations that have a separate sacrament (Confirmation) you make when you are of decision-making age, I see that as the moment of declaring faith. BUT you are right that many teenagers don't take it seriously. I think that is (imho) unfortunately a result of how parents and church leaders treat it--not as something to do on your own, when you're ready, but something you're expected to do when you get to be a specific age. Which robs it of its entire meaning of being a personal declaration of faith.

    So I guess what I'm attempting to say is that I find it strange to confirm babies, but you're right... it's not much better to confirm teenagers when you don't really give them a choice in the matter either.

  4. @'Becca
    Congrats on being confirmed! That's wonderful.

    It makes sense why you chose not to baptize Nicholas as an infant. I love that you did not then consider him too young at 2-3 to decide for himself that he wanted to be baptized. After all, if you're choosing to let a child decide something for himself, why then turn around and say that he's not old enough yet to make that decision?

    In Roman Catholicism most kids receive their first Communion when they're about 6 or 7. One of my favorite priests from college once talked about how no one expects kids that age to have a full understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist, but that they'll learn the basics now and then develop more of that understanding as they age, and that even adults can't ever fully understand it. It sounds similar to what your priest said, and I think that makes a lot of sense!

  5. I grew up in an Evangelical Covenant church. Our pastor will do infant and adult baptisms.
    Personally, my parents had me dedicated as a baby, but wanted me to make my own decision on baptism. I was baptized when I was 17. I wrote about it on my blog someplace...
    This spring, we had a combined church service with the Hispanic group that meets in our basement where we baptized several people from each congregation. One of the guys from our congregation is in his 60s I think, and was baptized as a baby, but he cried as he shared his opinion. He didn't get to choose, and so now, as a grandfather, he chose to be baptized. I thought that was really cool.
    We do Confirmation in 7th and 8th grade. Most people have their kids wait to take Communion until after Confirmation (that's how mine were). But we don't have "First Communion" for Confirmands because we feel it's too ritualistic and should be a choice instead of a forced event.

  6. @Becca
    I love hearing about what different churches do!

    I can see the logic of not taking Communion until after Confirmation. Although really, I think the order, and the age, are probably less important than the meaning ascribed to it and then how much it's a decision of the person doing it. Because as I said above, I think Confirmation is often more of an expectation than a decision, and you're right that having a "First Communion" definitely makes it an expectation. Interesting stuff to think about...

  7. I was raised in a non-denominational Christian home, but never went to church consistently until after I had a personal salvation experience - that is, the moment that I first felt Christ's loving presence in my life, and consciously chose to follow Him. Less than a year later, I chose to be baptized, at 18. I loved that it was something I felt moved to do, not because I felt it "changed" something about me or my spiritual identity, but rather because I could make a public statement to my family and friends that I was committing my life to Christ. I had already made the internal commitment, and the baptism was an opportunity for others to be witness to that external commitment.

    My church at the time did a really neat thing where they videotape you doing an interview with the pastor (amazing guy) in which you share your testimony and why you're choosing to be baptized. They then show that tape to the congregation immediately before the whole congregation witnesses the full-submersion baptism. I still have the videotape of my interview, and my baptism, and I love that I have that as a tangible reminder. Maybe something I'll show my kids one day.

    Missy :)

  8. @Missy--that is super cool! That might be able to help a child with their decision when to receive baptism!

    @Jessica--yeah, I didn't know that about Byz Caths until I met C, obviously! (FYI it's the same with Orthodox.) I've been meaning to write a post about how I feel as someone who was raised Roman Catholic but will be bringing up kids in the Byz rite. Not that I have any real life experience yet, but C & I have talked about it. Especially since when he was born, Byz Caths started acting more Roman and not giving all 3 sacraments to infants, so he actually had a Roman 1st communion as he was in parochial school when he was in 2nd grade. He probably was baptized and confirmed as an infant, from what we were able to find out from his records (the church moved, things were screwy).

    C always says "our kids are going to be shafted with gifts" since any kids on my side will be Roman and our kids won't have the same events that their cousins would have. But I doubt my kids will have cousins on my side, so it might be a moot fear. Plus, it's kind of a silly thing to be worried about (gifts, parties, etc.) BUT I know where he's going with this. My parents will probably ask "Oh when's 1st communion?" when our future kids are around 7 or 8. I'll have to remind them that DS/DD already celebrated that, and so on with confirmation. I bet it's easier for a mixed religion family to deal with this vs. a mixed RITE family! haha :)

    I can see why many Protestant denoms. choose to baptize as an adult or at least when a person can think/act for themselves. I know the dogma behind why Catholics baptize babies, but if the Church has taken a stance on limbo and babies, why the pressure to baptize so young still? I wonder if it's more cultural now or just "something you do."

  9. @Missy
    That's a really neat idea. I think, in the Catholic Church, that Confirmation is intended to be that "public statement" of faith (although it's obscured by the fact that it's expected at a specific age). I like the idea of the video statement regardless; I think we will make a point to allow our kids to decide if and when they get confirmed, so I like the idea of having a record of why they decided to be confirmed, for them to keep.

    Thanks for sharing! :)

  10. @Rabbit
    Interesting to think about mixed religion vs. mixed rite! I would guess that the latter probably causes more confusion, while the former causes more... arguments? But I don't have firsthand experience with either, so I couldn't say.

    Well, if baptism is framed as the moment of joining the church community, I can understand it being as young as possible. If it's intended for salvation, then I see what you mean about why it wouldn't have to be as young, if you believe young children can't commit personal sin. I see it as a welcoming into the community, so I see it as positive that infants are baptized, but I would be interested in how someone would defend a different view.

  11. @Jessica
    I can only speak for the mixed rite house, but yes, more arguments or conflict. I think it might be easier to understand Jews don't celebrate Easter than it is to understand Eastern Rite Catholics call it Pascha and do different things than the Romans, and don't forget the Orthodox--theirs is a week later, etc

  12. @Rabbit
    Yeah, what I was trying to say is that I would guess it's easier to understand, like you said, that Jews don't celebrate Easter, but that it causes more arguments, like "I can't believe my grandchildren won't be going to church on Easter!" Whereas I'd think it'd be easier to accept, though more confusing, when the root beliefs are the same but the details are different. Does that make any sense?

  13. Baptism is an outward sign of God's grace among us. The parents stand for the child being baptized and brought into the Church. The are responsible for bringing the child up in the faith they have professed at the infant's baptism, however many people miss this mark. One thing to note: God works through His Sacraments but God is not limited to His Sacraments. God's grace holds no bounds.

  14. @Dave Keller
    What I thought was great about what our priest said was that he didn't put the responsibility solely on the parents, but on the entire church community for bringing up a child in the faith. The entire congregation reaffirmed our baptismal promises during the baptism, not just the parents. I think that was a good reminder that a child is raised by their community, not just their parents.


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