“You have a fourth baptism! Man, I’m jealous, this doesn’t happen very often” texted me the pastor, just before driving to the airport to begin his much-deserved vacation. I am filling in for him, letting me experience the joys of parish ministry for a little while. And a perfect joy it is, especially when it is a short-term replacement without worries about administration and the parish office. It is a very nice parish, not too big and not too small, and a wonderful mix of people, and I am always happy to be asked to go there. But apparently, even there, four baptisms is a lot for their monthly baptism service.
And of all the joys of ministry, baptism must be the one we all like the most. I was quite excited at my first baptisms. The picture below is probably not the first baby that I baptized, but she would have been one of the first. The list at which we are all looking there is the list of names and the order in which they are baptized. It was a big parish, with many baptisms, so I had been reminded to hold on to this list so that I would stay on track and not mix up the names. My finger is somewhere in the middle, so I was probably starting to feel at ease. But can you see how only the baby is not looking at the list, but at what is most important: the baptismal font? She got the point. This is not about the name.
What does it mean to be transformed by baptism, to become a new person? This is what baptism is about. It is not an expression of one’s change of mind, of accepting the witness that Jesus of Nazareth is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God, and the one who restored humankind to the freedom of adopted children of God. It is something much deeper than what human thought can reach, not a change of mind but a change of one’s whole being.
It makes one part of the Christian community. Community is not just something that is nice to have if one happens to be a Christian, but it is part of the essential nature of Christianity. God is the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God, in three persons. The unity of God is the perfect unity of this community. And the Christian people are also a community, with each other and with Christ. They don’t just agree with each other. Indeed, as attested by history, they tend to disagree much more than they agree. But they are still one, not because they act as one, but because they are made this way through their baptism.
The Christian believer cannot be alone. Christianity is a collective religion, a religion of a community of believers. Even the life of a hermit monk must be learned, under supervision. It is learned by living with others in a monastery. In a monastic community, a monk who wishes to live in stricter isolation needs to show his brother monks that he is sufficiently prepared to live in community with God alone, through prayer and contemplation alone, in spite of and not because of his separation from his brothers.
The dearth of baptisms today could result from thinking that one should be allowed to be old enough to understand and consent to baptism. Some protestant communities have always insisted on it, but in a very different way. Protestants who rejected infant baptism still raised their children in their faith. They did not delay the process of becoming part of the community of believers. They considered the rite of baptism as the completion of the process of accepting one’s place in the Christian community. This is really not so very different from what Catholics do, who consider confirmation and first communion as completing the sacraments of initiation.
The Christian faith is not an individualistic faith, and it needs community to be experienced and understood. This goes against the modern spirit of self-determination and independence, but it is so much more in tune with human nature. We are never more human when we are together with others who have found faith in Christ, and infants and children would be the last persons anybody would want to exclude from this.
So I will rejoice today, as I get to be the one to welcome four more of our youngest join our community as a Christian people. This is quite a gift. For them and for me.