The Baptismal Sacrament: More than a One-Time Event

Posted on March 31, 2008. Filed under: Baptism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

With baptisms forming an important part of every Sunday Mass at my church, as my involvement as a parishioner has increased over the last few years, so to has my witness of this blessed event.  Before the baptism of my first born, the symbolism of the water, fire and oil, as well as the sash and lifting the child into the air, did not resonate with me to the degree it now does.  In essence, the welcoming of a “new life into the world followed by the welcoming of a “new soul” into the family of Christ is a powerful acknowledgement of our faith and commitment to a God-centered life.  While I could not recall my own baptism, as an adult I now recognize it as the first link between parental love and responsibility and child dependency in that it lays the early foundations for a relationship built on Christian values.

The items such as the sash and candle therefore become critical touchstones reminding both parent and child of that first “relational” commitment to God and to each other during the more tumultuous periods of everyday life.  Without it, we lack the foundation upon which the common ground of a shared love, faith and understanding can be relied upon as a tether between parent(s) and child in even the most challenging of circumstances.

Reflecting back on my first child’s baptism this meaning was diluted by a lack of understanding and was thereby viewed primarily as a process of Christian responsibility rather than a celebration of the bonds of love in the “trilogy” relationship between Christ, parent and child.

I do not mean to imply that I was not moved emotionally by the event itself as I was so proud of her that day and the fact that she was coming closer to God through the ceremony.  However, with the birth of my second child following so closely behind the passing of my father, who though ill, was to a large degree my touchstone, I came to realize that my growing commitment to Christ through activities such as this course began to fill the void of a tremendous loss.  And it is at this point that the relationship between my personal walk with Christ and the pending baptism of my second child has taken on a greater meaning.

Beyond the comforting presence of my father through the shared characteristics of a knowing twinkle in my son’s eyes and the warm, somewhat mischievous smile that son and grandfather seem to share, it is the growing relationship with Christ through daily prayer and scriptural readings that a deeper realization of the significance of the baptismal event has been gained.  And this is the key element that is often absent for the casual worshipper.  Specifically, the degree of the parent(s) commitment to Christ is directly proportional to the level of significance associated with the baptism of a child.

As an affirmation of our faith in front of God and the entire congregation, I no longer see baptism as a functional event that is driven by a societal or community obligation.  Nor do I consider it to be a familial rite of passage that is merely another check on the list of things that “should” be done.  Instead I now see it as a powerful witness to my own faith and the public declaration of my desire to walk with Christ on a daily basis.

Simply put, while a ceremony can be captured on tape as a means of recalling the happy memories of a gathering of family and friends, it is in the trenches of everyday life that a baptism takes on real meaning.  When viewed through the renewed lens of this personal epiphany, I no longer see the baptism as an “event” unto itself, but instead I see it as the first step in a life long journey.  A journey where both parent and child are challenged to actively seek God on a daily basis, versus paying casual homage to a distant deity according to dates on a calendar.

In a world that is becoming increasingly global whereby physical space, time and events are transcending historical boundaries in a matter of nanoseconds, the traditional definition of community and the values to which it has been ascribed, have by and large been lost.

In times past, where communities were more insular in nature in terms of travel due to limitations in both the means and resources available to the average family, the local church was the focal point of everyday life.  This geographical proximity created an implied compliance with religious standards through a societal pressure that is largely absent from today’s highly transient populace.

As a result of this growing disconnect between individuals both within and external to the familial unit itself, the concentrated influence of a community to both establish and enforce a collective set of values has diminished exponentially.   This in turn has shifted focus away from a body of shared interests based on biblical standards, to one of individual preferences and rights.

While this in no way implies that all participants in religious ceremonies such as baptism was historically the result of a forced compliance, what it does mean is that the perceived “value” associated with these eternal events has been somewhat diminished in a sea of diversity and over-sensitized rights of freedom, be it religion, speech or political inclination.

Recently our priest related a story about a wedding over which he had presided.   A few days after the blessed union took place he received a letter from the couple who thanked him for his services, but chided him for inserting “too much religion” into the ceremony.

In another example of the growing influence of secular interests is a discussion I had with a minister whose position regarding issues of heaven and hell as well as homosexuality had “softened” over time based on the evolving constituency of his church.  Instead of tending to his flock from a pulpit of established biblical principles, he yielded to the influence of a congregation under the auspices of “progressive” thinking by an enlightened pew.

It is against this backdrop of selective adherence to scriptures and Christian edicts that we collectively lose our way as well as deceive ourselves in terms of our relationship with God.

Therefore the true meaning of baptism has become for many a Will Rogers type of anecdote where the ceremony becomes a social event in which the religious significance and associated commitment to live a Christ-centered life becomes either an optional adjunct or ancillary by-product of religious fanaticism.

Matthew 15:8 (NKJV) would seem to illustrate God’s view of these hollow expressions of Christian ideals in a scriptural context when He states “these people draw near to me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”  (Note: also refer to 1 Samuel 29:13, Jeremiah 12:2 and Mark 7:6 for corresponding references in scripture.)

As with all things that relate to our Christian life, it is the intention of our hearts that we must examine to realize the full blessing of following religious doctrine.  This encompasses baptisms, weddings and funerals.

“Humans are born bent away from the Lord.”

“Our natural inclination is to please and serve self.”

“We must die to self, to come alive in Christ.”

Through numerous articles or countless sermons, these are just a few of the statements with which we are most familiar in terms of man’s relationship with God.

This “natural inclination” to see ourselves as the ultimate authority in our lives represents the internal battle within our members that scriptures such as Matthew 6:24 (KJV) reference.  Specifically, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

This means that when a child is born into this world, there is a latent predisposition towards fleshly inclinations.  That is why it is imperative to lay the foundations for a Christ-centered life as early as possible starting with the baptism.

However, and as previously discussed, the mere act of baptism simply plants the seed.   And as Jesus told the parable of the farmer sowing the seeds in Matthew 13:3-8, baptism’s true meaning and value can only be realized through a committed Christian life starting with the parents.

As I began to both weigh and understand the responsibilities associated with the baptismal process Ephesians 4:5 (KJV) seemed to stand out the most: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

At its heart is a theme of unity whereby all Christians are one in love and forbearance, in a “bond of peace” with one another as Matthew Henry put it in his commentary on Ephesians 4.  We as a body are forever connected through Christ, the head of the church (one Lord); the gospel – which is the doctrine of Christian faith (one faith); and the profession of our faith through our baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (one baptism).

As a result, my prayers became more focused on having a positive influence within both my direct as well as congregational families.  Prior to reading Ephesians 4 (and in particular verse 5), the broader implications had not occurred to me.

The ideal metaphor from my perspective is found in John 3:3-6 (KJV), specifically Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ statement, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus’ question, “How can a man be born when he is old?  can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” is in essence talking about something with which we can all relate in that we go through a spiritual rebirth (refer to John 3:5-6) when we accept Christ as our personal Saviour.  Our “baptism” occurs when we decide to actually follow Christ?

This is a key distinction in that many acknowledge Christ as the Son of God, while still more accept Him as their Saviour.   However, until we make the decision to surrender all to Him and take up our respective crosses, we are not truly baptized into the Kingdom of God.  And like the seeds that fell upon the stony places or those that fell amongst the thorns, all who operate on the periphery of their faith are the same as the new born babe, neither knowing or understanding the importance of their baptism.

From the perspective of pastoral self-identity, this basic truth transformed my thinking from a motherly inclination to one of a ministerial imperative.  This after all is in line with the multiple roles we play as parents, such as in times of sickness we are the nurturing healer, in times of  angst we are our children’s shepherds, and in things spiritual their pastors or teachers.   This is of course our call to action both now as well as in the future.

From the broader perspective of my role as a minister to the community in general, the ability to experience baptism as a parent first hand provides me with a better understanding of how congregational parents approach this sacrament.

It further accentuates both the importance of taking an active role in the development of my children’s faith, as well as creating a sense of urgency in terms of  taking stock of my progress relating to my personal walk with Christ.  If I am found wanting in the latter, my effectiveness in the former is seriously undermined.  In short, a “do as I say and not as I do” lifestyle would diminish my testimony in all areas of potential influence whether within the family unit or in the greater community, which is the body of Christ. This increased level of scrutiny was a sobering realization in that it forced me to examine my motives for pursuing the ministerial pursuit.  When one openly embarks on a journey of faith in which God is at the center, it naturally elevates the expectations of others, an expectation which is high but not impossible to meet through the guiding power of the Holy Spirit.

While there were certainly a number of key areas of reflection, for me personally, the importance of distinguishing the baptismal sacrament from a one time ceremonial event to a life long commitment to follow Christ spoke the loudest.

Especially when you understand the significance of a spiritual baptism in which a conscience decision to surrender one’s life to God means forfeiting all worldly claims of self-determination.  As an ongoing battle of varying degrees for each and every one of us who resides in these mortal coils, I cannot help but think of Christ’s fervent prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said, “Oh my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” yet in an act of perfect submission concluded with “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou (wilt).  (Refer to Matthew 26:39 KJV.)

Through the guidance and strength provided by the Holy Spirit, it is this example of Christ’s total surrender to God’s will that we must emulate.  And therefore it is incumbent upon us as adults to ensure that our children’s baptism represents a true starting point.

In conjunction with this realization, was an increased awareness of the necessity and importance of my role as a facilitator from both a parental and lay ministry perspective.

Once again, by looking beyond the ceremonial significance of the baptism, which rightfully centers on the child’s introduction as a member of the family of Christ,  I could not help but examine the nature of my own relationship with God.  This eye opening self-diagnoses has better equipped me to be a positive force in the life of my children and the community as a whole in that I am determined to lead by deed versus spoken word alone.

Finally, the question that remains unanswered is how do I effectively make an impact in a world in which the elemental roots of the family unit are in a constant state of transition.

Tantamount to hitting a moving target, you no longer have the benefit of establishing and developing a relationship over a long period of time.  Instead, interaction is often reduced to a disconnected series of sound bites requiring a “connect the dots” capacity to gain the necessary horizontal perspective of an eternal matter.

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