Baptism: Initiation, Call and Commissioning
When I was growing up, my parish, St. James of the Marches in Totowa Borough, N.J., had a large marble baptismal font in a room off one of the side entrances to the Church. St. James was no different than any other Church at that time. The baptismal fonts were off, out of the way, very often behind an iron grill off to the side of the entrance to the Church.
When a baby was born, the godparents would bring the baby to the Church on a Sunday afternoon with no one outside of the family present except the priest. The baby’s mother would be home resting, she wished. The father would be helping her prepare the party, she also wished.
Back in those days baptism was almost totally identified with taking away original sin. While that was and is true, it is only one part of the sacrament and often a misunderstood part. The concept of original sin refers not to an action but to a relationship. Because mankind, Adam, rejected living the life of God, all people are born without this life. This deprivation is the result of the first sin, that’s why it is called original sin. The emphasis on original sin originated with St. Augustine during the fifth century.
But what did baptism mean before that? What did the Jesus mean when he told his disciples to go out and baptize in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Since Jesus did not need to be freed from original sin, what did his baptism by John mean?
The Church asked itself these questions during the Second Vatican Council of the 1960's. It studied and recovered that which was always there but had been either forgotten or simply pushed aside. The Council emphasized these three truths about baptism: 1) Baptism is an initiation into the people of God; 2) Baptism is a call to discipleship; and 3) Baptism is a commissioning.
Initiation, call and commissioning. Let’s focus on these three elements.
Initiation rites are most often public ceremonies. During the rite a significant number of the group meets to witness and welcome the renewal of the group through the initiation of new members. It would be odd for someone to be initiated into a group with few members of the group present. Perhaps you have gone to or seen pictures of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, or the great Cathedrals of Florence, Siena or Pisa. Next to these basilicas you find a very large circular building. Those were the baptistries, large enough for the entire congregation to gather around a center baptism font. This is how the early Church envisioned baptism. And this is what happened for centuries.
But as time went on baptism was relegated to a semi-private ceremony. The Council knew that did not make sense. Therefore the baptismal fonts were moved from side rooms to the front of the Church or to the main entrances of the Church. Many parishes celebrate baptisms during a Sunday Mass. A small parish like St. Matthew where I was sixteen years ago could do this. It is much more difficult to do it in a large parish with many infants being born like St. Ignatius. But it would be ideal. Perhaps one action we should incorporate when we have baptisms of babies is calling the oldest person present, perhaps the baby’s great grandparents, to come forward and lay their hands on the baby as a sign that the heritage of the faith is being transmitted to the child. Regardless of how a parish organizes its celebration of baptism, it is clear that there is no such creature as a private baptism.
The second point is that baptism is a call to discipleship. In the early days of the Church this call was so serious that people who were not born into Christian families spent years preparing to enter the Church. The catechuminate, the period of preparation, usually lasted three years. In some places it lasted seven years. All during this time the candidates for baptism had to prove their sincerity to live as Jesus lived by prayer and good works. They even had to produce witnesses who would publically testify to this. Back in those days to be baptized was to be counter cultural. To accept the Lord’s call to discipleship meant to live different from the rest of the world. It meant a commitment to holiness.
Somehow or other, much of this was lost as the centuries progressed. As the centuries rolled on the notion that the baptized were called to a radical life was submerged. The sacrament was reduced to a fixation on original sin. Baptism became more of a spiritual inoculation to get rid of something rather than a call to be something. Today, members of our parish hold baptismal classes for new parents to alert them that their child’s baptism is not just an erasing of original sin but a call to discipleship. The life of the disciple must be lived by the child’s parents. By having their children baptized, parents are taught that they are taking upon themselves the responsibility to raise disciples for Christ. That is the reason why the greatest action any person can do with his or her life is to raise a Christian, or two, or three or four....
Finally, baptism is not just a christening, a signing with Jesus Christ. Baptism is a commissioning. The baptized are called to ministry, to do the work of God. All of us, not just priests, all of us are commissioned through our baptism to be representatives of Jesus. All of us were chosen by God for his mission. Remember, Jesus told us, “It is not you who chose me, it is I who chose you.”
Baptism means for us exactly what it meant for Jesus that day he stepped into the River Jordan and was washed by John. He was beginning his public life, his mission. His baptism was his initiation, his entrance into that mission. He emerged from the water commissioned by the Father to do his work. In the waters of baptism we have been initiated, called and commissioned. We have been initiated into a worldwide people, called to discipleship and commissioned to ministry.
“This is my Beloved Son, listen to him.” The importance of this epiphany lies in the words of the Father. Jesus and Jesus alone is our teacher. In a world full of gurus, dynamic preachers, and people of every opinion imaginable each with thousands and thousands of followers, we need to look to only one place, to only one person for guidance. We only need to look to Jesus Christ. Our way to God the Father is through the person of Jesus Christ. We take these steps by responding to his call for us to take up our crosses and follow him. Any theory or practice that diminishes the need for Jesus in our lives or relegates his presence to a secondary role can not be our way to the Father. We are not told to listen to this guru, or that dynamic preacher, or to read this or that famous writer, we are told to listen only to the Beloved Son.
The writer Annie Dillard had a mystical experience that led her to the convent. She was walking through the woods when she saw a valley below her and two men in the water. She realized it was John the Baptist and Jesus. She saw Jesus come out of the water. Suddenly, she was right next to the Lord. She saw the beads of water on his shoulders. She looked closer and in each bead of water she saw a nation, a city, a home, a person’s face. It was then that it occurred to her that Jesus knew everyone one of his people and was baptized to care for and to serve each one of us.
When you leave Church today and dip your hands into those miniature baptismal fonts we call holy water fonts, think of your dignity, your call and God’s statement of your commission: “You are my Beloved in whom I am well pleased. Go and be my disciples.”
His love is beyond our understanding. His voice is the one we need to hear.